Why The DNC Held First Presidential Debate Of 2020 Primary In Miami

Kevin Gosztola
Jun 26 · 7 min read
Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez (Photo by Edward Kimmel)

*Update: Article update to reflect Democratic presidential debate was held on June 26–27.

For the Democrats to win the presidential election in 2020, they will have to win several swing states that Hillary Clinton lost in her campaign against President Donald Trump.

The sites of the first two debates hosted by the Democratic National Committee are Florida on June 26–27 and Michigan in July 30–31 — both swing states.

“Miami is a vibrant and dynamic city that reflects the values and diversity of the Democratic Party. I couldn’t imagine a better setting for our first debate,” declared DNC Chair Tom Perez, when the first debate was announced.

Democrats do not need Florida to beat Trump. If the party’s nominee in 2020 wins every state Clinton won and Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, they will likely take the White House.

These three states in the Midwest and northeastern United States are probably easier for the Democrats to win than Florida, given the party’s history of success in these regions.

Yet, centering the party’s primary strategy on winning Florida is perfect for the establishment, which would like to set the confines for debate and discourage candidates from expressing ideas centrist liberals consider odious.

By focusing on Florida, candidates like Joe Biden are privileged while insurgent candidates like Bernie Sanders are disadvantaged.

The party appeals to the middle and attempts to win new voters by sounding like smarter Republicans. They pander to the center-right politics of ethnic populations who left Latin American countries.

While this stunts enthusiasm among the progressive base, the leadership of the party maintains influence and power.

McClatchy reporter Alex Daugherty summed it up in the lead to a story on the debate with the headline, “Miami Democrats have a message for 2020 presidential hopefuls: Don’t alienate anyone.”

“The Green New Deal. Medicare for all. Federal funding for abortions. A universal basic income. Reparations for descendants of slavery,” listed Daugherty. “The policies being proposed and debated by many of the leading Democrats running for president are at odds with the messaging local lawmakers and Democrats want to hear during the first debates in Miami.”

The report additionally suggested the region is “where political dynasties were built by families who fled communist Cuba and left-leaning candidates have a history of coming up short,” which is why candidates should avoid certain bold proposals.

Featured in the story were the voices of three Democratic members of Congress: Representative Donna Shalala, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who was born in Ecuador.

They seem to have appointed themselves gatekeepers of the Democratic Party, who will tell presidential candidates what they can and cannot say while in Miami.

“I have not been for Medicare For All and I think all the candidates have had trouble defending their position,” Shalala told Daugherty. “I’m pretty pragmatic. There are 29 million people that don’t have health insurance. We need to get them covered.”

“In Florida in particular, the place where they are going to be, the state has not extended Medicaid, which means there are working class people that do not have access to healthcare. That’s important to the people of Miami,” Shalala also said.

Representative Donna Shalala (Photo by AFGE)

Shalala served on the board of the UnitedHealth Group corporation. She remained an investor in the for-profit health insurance company, even as she campaigned for election in 2018. Her record of support for for-profit health care is why she is committed to discouraging candidates from embracing Medicare For All.

As former Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Barzee Flores pointed out for POLITICO, Shalala was on the board of Lennar Homes during the “Great Recession.” The developer laid off workers and sought government bailouts while Shalala benefited from her status in the real estate corporation.

Mucarsel-Powell urged Democrats to talk about the effects of climate change, but as for proposals that would challenge the stranglehold of the fossil fuel industry and meaningfully address the destructive impacts, she offered nothing.

She connected immigrants from countries in Latin America with left-wing governments to U.S. politics, suggesting they are “wary of large, government-run institutions because they associate them with corruption and inequality.” This includes single-payer health care.

“A lot of people come here fleeing governments that are filled with corruption and violence and they don’t have a lot of trust in institutions,” Mucarsel-Powell told Daugherty. “[Presidential candidates] must understand what is happening in Venezuela and Colombia and talk about what affects us here locally.”

She embraced the right-wing messaging of President Trump and Republicans, who hold up Venezuela as a “failed socialist state” to discourage voters from embracing progressive policies.

Mucarsel-Powell previously stated on “Face The Nation” that she was glad Trump “understands the issues facing the Venezuela people.” She backs the slow-motion coup and supports self-proclaimed Venezuela president Juan Guaido, even though Guaido’s inner circle embezzled tens of thousands of dollars in humanitarian aid that was raised for the Venezuelan people.

“A serious campaign for the presidency in Florida will micro-target and hyper-focus on the vast, diverse ethnic issues that are important to our base communities,” Wasserman Schultz argued.

According to Wasserman Schultz, who apparently represents one of the largest Venezuelan populations in the United States, that includes “lots of talk about Venezuela.”

She is one of several Florida Democrats, who believe it was a “political mistake” for candidates, particularly Bernie Sanders, to not call Maduro a “dictator” or say Guaido is the country’s “legitimate leader.”

“On the debate stage next week, it’ll be absolutely essential, particularly because of how narrowly our state is won and lost, for our candidates to talk about the importance of how we can transition Venezuela to a democracy,” Wasserman Schultz declared.

In February, when Florida Democrats denounced Sanders for not calling Maduro a “dictator,” Shalala stated, “He is not going to be the nominee of the Democratic Party. He has demonstrated again that he does not understand this situation.”

The message from these gatekeepers is embrace the meddling of the Trump administration in Venezuela and support the right-wing politics of Guaido, who leads a faction that has floundered in attempts to mobilize popular support.

When Sanders ran for president against Clinton, a debate in Miami, Univision moderator Maria Salina Malinas said, “In 1985, you praised the Sandinista government and you said that Daniel Ortega was an impressive guy. This is what you said about Fidel Castro.”

The clip showed Sanders recalling how the political establishment was convinced the people of Cuba would rebel against Castro. He mentioned they forgot he gave people education and health care and transformed the society. Just because Ronald Reagan disliked these people did not mean the people of the nation felt the same way, Sanders added, and he applied this reason to what was unfolding with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

Sanders’ point about imperial hubris went totally ignored, as Salinas followed up with a question that will likely be asked again on June 27: “In South Florida there are still open wounds among some exiles regarding socialism and communism. So please explain what is the difference between the socialism that you profess and the socialism in Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela.”

Clinton won 64 percent of the vote in the Florida primary while Sanders only picked up 33 percent of the vote.

Florida Democrats — and the vast majority of the Democratic Party establishment — do not raise the specter of socialism in Latin America because they believe candidates need to rebut Republican messaging (i.e. Republican Senator Joni Ernst crying, “Our freedoms are under attack because the radical left will stop at nothing until socialism has spread from coast to coast.) They raise the specter of socialism in Latin America because they understand it is a historically effective attack that can protect the status quo for elites by instilling fear and anxiety in voters.

This message also helps neoliberals perpetuate a foreign policy that is highly destabilizing and responsible for the uptick in immigrants.

Red-baiting is the refuge of right-wing Democrats who find themselves in a country, where student loan debt forgiveness, free college tuition, single-payer health care, a living wage, and other policies that promote economic human rights are increasingly popular.

Corporate-backed think tanks, such as Third Way, see Sanders and the shift in politics that he has inspired among progressives as an “existential threat” because they sense they are losing ground.

In fact, days before the debate, Third Way held an event in South Carolina called “Opportunity 2020” that brought “moderates” together, including Mucarsel-Powell, to challenge the grassroots insurgency changing the party.

Fewer and fewer voters in the base of the party believe so-called moderates when they complain that “democatic socialism” cannot win. A strategy built around winning Florida is a desperate attempt to resist a political transformation that is making their brand of policy making more irrelevant each day.

Kevin Gosztola

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Journalist. Writes about politics & film. Managing editor of Shadowproof.com. Twitter: @kgosztola