Last night the three Democrats running for president were at Drake University in Des Moines for the Iowa Brown and Black Forum, billed as the oldest presidential forum geared toward voters of color. Jorge Ramos was joined by his Fusion teammates as moderators for this year’s event, and for the most part they asked the tough questions that much of the Black and Latino electorates would like to see posed to anyone seeking the top job. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who’s in a dead heat with Hillary Clinton in Iowa just three weeks ahead of that state’s first-in-the-nation caucus, was asked about marijuana decriminalization, affirmative action and making female students safer on America’s college campus, which he said he supports “of course.” For her part, the former first lady, former senator, former secretary of State and former presumptive Democratic nominee suggested she was against mass deportations (including the recent raids conducted by her old boss) and in favor of community policing (which Sanders also favors of, “of course”).
Martin O’Malley, the former mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland (and the official “other guy”) was… Martin O’Malley: somewhere between Sanders and Hillary in both style and substance. O’Malley has made a lot of terrific statements concerning the country’s inhumane immigration laws and criminal injustice system. But there’s something much too rote about his speeches and responses. When Ramos pointed out that this year’s Democratic selection of candidates offered not one non-white person (though, to be fair, a woman and socialist atheist ain’t bad), O’Malley began his answer by dropping his head and staring at his knees as he spoke, bringing to mind Will Ferrell’s almost Pavlovian debate response in Old School. O’Malley has an unfortunate tendency to deliver a lot his answers, if not staring at his knees or shoes, then in an equally mechanical way. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with a presidential candidate being polished — “unpolished politician” maybe an oxymoron — but 2016 is not the year for blatantly polished politicians, as indicated by the steady popularity of Donald J. Trump and Senator Rafael Cruz on the Republican side. Then again, O’Malley’s aim might be to run as “Bernie Lite,” which, come to think of it, isn’t that bad a plan in a country as politically timid as ours.
What struck me most was how liberal Hillary sounded, or tried to sound, clearly a testament to how the Sanders campaign has pulled the rhetoric within the Democratic Party to the left. She spoke of police officers terrorizing the communities they’re meant to serve and even the privilege she has enjoyed as a white person — only after she was asked to discuss white privilege, to be sure. (I can’t imagine such a question being raised in a Republican forum; thus, one clear difference between the blue and red teams.) Hillary’s polish makes O’Malley look like a sidewalk penny, but listen to her long enough and you start to hear her inner centrist. She goes on and on about sympathizing with child immigrants and their families, but then says that those fleeing blood-soaked Central America and seeking asylum in the United States are at the mercy of the United States’ callous (and regularly xenophobic) laws. Hillary insists she isn’t for mass deportations but for deportations nonetheless, only on a case-by-case basis. She wants to make sure each and every asylum seeker has his or her story heard in court, before they’re crowded onto a bus or plane and returned to whichever hellhole they temporarily managed to escape.
The former chief of U.S. foreign relations also insists that the United States “helped Colombia,” a reference to Plan Colombia which saw the United States increase aid to Colombia’s security forces in an effort to combat organized crime — or at least that was the stated goal of the program. In fact, the United States wanted to help Colombia’s right-wing government finally put down leftist rebels and end the country’s decades-long civil war, and indeed Plan Colombia ushered in a wave of human rights abuses committed by Colombian military and police forces, much of it funded and taught by Washington. If Colombia can be described as peaceful today, it’s only because enough of its citizens have died, fled or disappeared. Then again, hawks like Hillary love to fool the American public into thinking that the cost of peace is war.
It’s too bad for her that Bernie Sanders decided he wants to be president. He may be a socialist in name only, but his agenda is progressive enough to make voting for a woman the conservative option for Democrats this year.
Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer and the deputy editor at Latino Rebels. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.