The first viral image of the first 2020 Democratic presidential debate was Cory Booker glaring at Beto O’Rourke. The congressman from Texas had tossed a few lines of Spanish into his answer about the economy, and the senator from New Jersey looked aggravated. We got the payoff from that glare a half-hour later, when Booker recited his own Spanish answer to a question about his first days in office. Booker, it seemed, was mad that O’Rourke had made the Español move first.
As CNN notes, neither O’Rourke and Booker spoke perfect Spanish. But both men gave answers that were surely meaningful to many Spanish speakers. “We need to include each person in the success of this economy. But if we want to do that, we need to include each person in our democracy. Each voter, we need the representation, and each voice, we must listen to,” O’Rourke said, per CNN’s translation.
“The situation right now is unacceptable. This president has attacked, has demonized immigrants—it’s unacceptable and I will change this one,” said Booker.
At the same time, there were surely many others who saw these moments as eye-rollingly thirsty attempts to appeal to a key demographic in the Democratic electorate. Politics is all about trying to win people’s trust and affection. When the trying is what’s most visible, that effort can tilt from earnest to embarrassing.
That line between earnestness and embarrassment is an incredibly fuzzy one. There were several moments on Wednesday night when candidates basically said the right things, usually about minority or marginalized communities, but their answers were too clumsy and straightforwardly pandering to serve as rousing calls to justice. First, there was Washington Gov. Jay Inslee following up on Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s spiel on health care by pointing and yelling about how insurance companies need to cover abortion care. In that moment, Inslee resembled a political Kool-Aid Man bursting through the NBC backdrop to shout, “ABORTION!” (That simple exclamation would’ve been much smoother than the phrasing Inslee used: “their exercise of their right of choice.”)
There was also former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, who tried to shout out trans people in his answer on abortion rights. He began by speaking about women who need access to “the right to exercise that right to choose,” then added, “or, let’s also not forget, someone in the trans community, a trans female.” The crowd went wild! But trans women, who were assigned male at birth, generally aren’t the trans people who need abortions. Castro seems to be confused about what you call people who were assigned female at birth but identify as men: trans men!
Even more awkward was Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who, put on the defensive about her record on gay rights, tried her darnedest to say “LGBTQ” and ended up sounding like she was reading off a slow stream of bingo numbers. And then there was New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who made several important points about police brutality and racism, but began by labeling his black son as “something that sets me apart from all my colleagues running in this race.” An actual black man stood three people to his left.
I’m glad de Blasio is thinking about race and policing, and that Castro is thinking about trans people who need abortions. I’m glad they’re talking about it, too! But with so little time to delve into the candidates’ policy positions, and given the inherently inelegant format of a debate that forces them to nip at each other’s heels for time and attention, every mention of a marginalized group runs the risk of feeling like calculated box-checking—a tokenizing moment rather than a genuine statement of belief. When politicians make it about themselves, as de Blasio did with his son and Inslee did with his record on abortion (and as politicians are largely forced to do if they ever hope to be elected), it starts to sound exploitative. And when a candidate is met with roaring applause for merely mentioning trans people, it starts to sound like substance is less important than virtue-signaling.
Politicians sound unnatural and clumsy when they feel unnatural and clumsy. If a candidate’s transition from a question about Iran to a question about the economy sounds a bit forced, no one notices or cares. When someone’s identity group is being called out by someone who’s not a member of that identity group, the stakes are much higher. The best way to make this kind of call-out feel more substantive and less tokenizing is to put some policy behind the pandering. It’s great that Castro knows that trans people can get pregnant. Does he have anything to say about improving trans health care access?
To get better and more natural at talking about marginalized communities, politicians need to do more talking about marginalized communities, and that talking is probably going to be awkward. In other words, before we can stop cringing at these debate performances, we’re going to have to watch a lot more cringe-worthy debate performances. There are a lot of good intentions here. It’s only a matter of time before they’re backed by better execution.