It was pretty startling, actually, viewing the lineup for the first debate of Democratic presidential hopefuls in April 2007 on a stage in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Among them were the usual suspects — Sens. Chris Dodd, John Edwards, and Joe Biden. And then, there were surprises — Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
This is different, I thought. Whatever happens next, this looks like America, an America I had rarely experienced except in the aspirational promises of its founding documents, with the few exceptions of pioneers such as Shirley Chisholm or Jesse Jackson, when it came to choosing presidents.
When I covered the second Republican debate in May of that year, in Columbia, South Carolina, distinguishing between the candidates was a little tougher at first glance.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Sens. John McCain were familiar faces, for sure. But with all the white guys in dark suits and red or blue ties, I admit I needed a cheat sheet to figure out if it was Reps. Tom Tancredo or Duncan Hunter doing the talking. (I do remember McCain, the only person on stage who had been tortured, being the only prospective candidate who spoke out against torture of terrorist suspects. It’s doubtful I will hear similar sentiments from the current Republican standard-bearer.)
It’s 2019, and the more things change, the more they stay the same.
On the Democratic side, in a debate slate so crowded it will take two nights next week to accommodate almost everyone, there is diversity — of age, race, gender and point of view, with different candidates choosing different issues to tackle as a priority, from climate change to voting rights.
On the Republican side stands one man. Yes, he has a challenge from former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, an anti-Trump Republican vainly and gently trying to wrestle support from the besotted GOP base. But make no mistake, it is Trump’s GOP.
In truth, when Trump occupied that crowded debate stage of Republican hopefuls in the 2016 campaign, he grabbed the spotlight with insult and bile and might as well have been all alone up there. Former corporate CEO Carly Fiorina, who tried to break up the boy’s club, hardly made a dent and was instead the target of sexist jabs from the president-to-be.
In the president’s official re-election announcement this week, he made clear that for the GOP, 2020 is 2016 on steroids. At his kickoff rally in Orlando, Florida, Trump recycled his greatest hits — talking tough on immigration, painting Democrats as not just opponents but evil threats, and dismissing any criticism of him as unfair and un-American. Though she has left competitive political life, Trump can’t quit Clinton, mentioned more than anyone he might face at the ballot box next November.
If anything, since 2008, the GOP has been regressing. Any effort at outreach to minorities is half-hearted at best, with Trump’s passion saved for the hurt he promises to unleash, such as mass deportations sure to split families and leave citizen children parentless. He calls for investigating and jailing opponents, even as former members of his team — think Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and a host of others — face charges or prison time.
Whatever one thinks of reparations for American descendants of enslaved human beings, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s wish to shut down merely discussing the legacy of systemic injustice as “something that happened 150 years ago,” as he said, willfully ignores the history of entrenched-in-law discrimination and mistreatment of those descendants. He advertises his own dismissive contempt for those seeking truth and reconciliation.
The fact that the hearings began on Juneteenth, marking the day news of emancipation came belatedly to Texas, may or may not have escaped McConnell’s notice.
The ever-cynical McConnell used the fact of Obama’s two terms as proof that racism is nonexistent, knowing he did everything in his power — and what incredible power he had and has — to truncate Obama’s presidency, to thwart it, capping it off with denying a hearing on Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland.
Trump this week took the time to double down on his belief that the exonerated Central Park Five were guilty, in spite of coerced confessions and DNA evidence that cleared them and left the real rapist and murderer free to continue his crime spree. As videos continue to prove police misconduct in interactions with minority men, women and children, Trump’s position is clearly case closed on considering race-based injustice in his America.
Trump as candidate and symbol is the Republican Party’s position on diversity, and it isn’t pretty.
Still, the onstage rainbow coalition — the inclusion of Sens. Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, along with Julián Castro, Andrew Yang and others — may hide Democrats’ own nostalgia for the past.
Despite the fact that the party’s last White House occupant, and a two-term one at that, was an African-American named Barack Hussein Obama, with a beloved first lady who still sells out arenas at the drop of a hat, there is a rush, if current polls are to be believed, to crown Joe Biden, seen as the most electable by his supporters and the candidate himself, his past unsuccessful runs notwithstanding.
Part of the reason is, of course, the lessons of 2016. Trump, by force of his own attention-grabbing personality, was able to change the rules of the game. When a President Obama is followed by an inexperienced white guy with three wives (though not at the same time) and a host of broken contracts and bankruptcies in his past, coasting into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. on a raft of racist and sexist statements that only strengthen his appeal, it’s pretty clear that my mom’s counsel that a black person has to be twice as good to get half as far so I better keep my nose to the grindstone still holds.
Before the first Democratic debate, it’s difficult to predict the big moments, the gaffes, the surprises. But comparing the stages of 2007 and 2019 proves that when it comes to politics, it’s tough for a not-so-old country to change its habits. All it took was Donald Trump, and the attitudes he did not cause but enabled, for so many Americans to doubt the progress we thought we made.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.