The tragic timing of the Paris terrorist attacks on Friday gave Hillary Clinton the chance to show off her foreign policy chops during Saturday evening’s Democratic presidential candidate debate in Des Moines, Iowa. “This election is not only about electing a president. It’s also about choosing our next commander-in-chief,” Clinton said, and the breadth and detail of her subsequent remarks about how to fight terrorism underscored that there was only one former secretary of state on the stage.
It’s no surprise, then, that two-thirds of Democratic primary voters who watched the debate thought that she won the debate, according to Public Policy Polling.
Really, the forum contained few surprises, but it is worth noting how the conversation on college campus race relations sparked by recent events at the University of Missouri made its way into the proceedings.
Frontrunner Hillary Clinton waded cautiously into a question posed by moderator John Dickerson, host of CBS News’ “Face The Nation” about the effectiveness of a campaign by students in bringing down Mizzou’s president and chancellor.
“I come from the ’60s, a long time ago. There was a lot of activism on campus — Civil Rights activism, antiwar activism, women’s rights activism — and I do appreciate the way young people are standing up and speaking out,” said Clinton.
“Obviously, I believe that on a college campus, there should be enough respect so people hear each other. But what happened at the university there, what’s happening at other universities, I think reflects the deep sense of, you know, concern, even despair that so many young people, particularly of color, have.”
Dickerson’s query was aimed at remarks Clinton made back in August to Black Lives Matter activists when she told them, “I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You’re not going to change every heart.”
Yet Saturday night at the debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Clinton stopped short of saying whether Mizzou students had done just that. Instead, she launched into a listing of Black lives cut short recently “by police or random killings in their neighborhood,” saying she had met with the mothers of the victims.
Twitter responded under the hashtag #SayTheirNames, by noting her list and identifying some of the victims she left unnamed. One of them was Hadiyah Pendleton, the 15-year-old Chicagoan who was the unintended victim of a gang-related shooting just a week after she had performed at an event relating to President Obama’s second inauguration in 2013.
Fixing a “broken criminal justice system”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, whom only one-fifth of those polled by PPP considered to the debate winner, took on issues such as mass incarceration, police misconduct and Black joblessness more forcefully than the other candidates:
“According to the statistics that I’m familiar with, a black male baby born today stands a one in four chance of ending up in the criminal justice system,” said Sanders. “Fifty-one percent of high school African American graduates are unemployed or underemployed.
“We have more people in jail today than any other country on earth. We’re spending $80 billion locking people up, disproportionately Latino and African American.
“We need, very clearly, major, major reform in a broken criminal justice system. From top to bottom. And that means when police officers out in a community do illegal activity — kill people who are unarmed who should not be killed, they must be held accountable. It means that we end minimum sentencing for those people arrested. It means that we take marijuana out of the federal law as a crime and give states the freedom to go forward with legalizing marijuana.”
Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland and former mayor of Baltimore, said that he had probably visited “more grave sites than any of the three of us on this stage when it comes to urban crime, loss of lives.”
However, critics have said that tough policing tactics during O’Malley’s time as Baltimore’s mayor contributed greatly to the climate that exploded earlier this year after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, when he was governor. He recently concurred that he shares responsibility for those law enforcement policies.
Saturday night, though, O’Malley instead focused on the facts that under his tenures, “We restored voting rights to 52,000 people. We decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. I repealed the death penalty. And we also put in place a civilian review board. We reported…discourtesy, and lethal force and brutality complaints.”
Raising the bar on wages
Though mostly civil, the debate was not without its sparring. The candidates mixed it up over the federal minimum wage – not over whether it should be raised, which all agree on – but how high.
Sanders and O’Malley would raise it to $15 an hour, the level that nationwide protests called for last week on the day of the Republican debate; but Clinton would only raise it to $12, agreeing with Princeton economist Alan Krueger that a $15 hourly wage would, in her words, have “no international comparisons.” Argued O’Malley, “You have no disposable income when you are making 10, 12 bucks an hour.”
As mentioned in last week’s Republican debate recap on Ebony.com, the Economic Policy Institute says that if we even raised the federal minimum hourly wage from its current $7.25 an hour to $12 by 2020, more than one-third of black workers would receive higher pay and 35 million American workers overall would benefit.
Assuming Clinton makes it to the general election, she will likely be up against a GOP candidate who opposes raising the federal minimum wage altogether. Will her stance be moderate enough for voters outside of the Democratic base?
Just as importantly, will this issue be among those that motivate black voters, a mainstay of Clinton’s support thus far, to come out next November and “tip the scales,” as a recent NBC News online poll suggested, in her favor?
Sheryl Huggins Salomon is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based editor and digital media consultant. Follow her on Twitter.