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The Winner of Last Night’s Debate Was Rep. Barbara Lee (Who Was Not Even There)


Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) speaks from a podium at the Impeachment Now! rally

Last night’s debate sure was … a thing that happened. Most of it, as usual, was nonsense. The vast majority of the night was dedicated to talking about foreign policy and especially Iran. Things did briefly get predictably heated between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The moderators were much better than their past counterparts at getting the candidates to stick to the subjects asked and also the time allotted, but many of the questions asked were frustrating.

There was an interesting thing that happened right at the start of the debate, though. The first question was a standard broad why are you the best person for this job, but specifically framed within the context of our recent almost-war with Iran. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer brought up that a lot of other candidates had been “questioning [Joe Biden’s] judgment in voting to authorize the Iraq war.” Biden admitted he’d made a mistake but still defended his “record overall on everything we’ve done.”

Blitzer then asked Sanders why voters should trust him more than Biden, since he’s also “recently acknowledged that [his] vote to authorize the war in Afghanistan was also a mistake.” Sanders responded by praising his California’s Rep. Barbara Lee.

“Well, it’s a little bit of a difference,” he said of his vote on Afghanistan. “On that particular vote, every single member of the House, including myself, voted for it. Only Barbara Lee voted against it.”

This wasn’t the first time Sanders gave Lee this kind of much-deserved and overdue credit. He also brought her up in last month’s debate.

Last night’s mention of Lee stood out in a different way, though, and not just because of the recent escalation in our relationship with Iran. For one thing, another candidate, Tom Steyer, echoed Sanders’ praise of Lee. Steyer has no political experience and in trying to frame that as an advantage, he pointed to all of Congress, save for Lee, voting to authorize that war.

Last month, the Washington Post published an exposé on “The Afghanistan Papers,” “a confidential trove of government documents” that proves just how severely mislead the American people were regarding the war in Afghanistan. The report barely managed to crack through the impenetrably dense news cycle, in part because the fact that that war was based on lies feels to many to be common knowledge today. In the current race, it seems obvious that the Democratic candidates would be condemning the war and even going so far as to state their mistakes.

But back in 2001, Lee was an outlier in that vote, which occurred just a few days after the September 11th attacks. In 2016, The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald called her decision “as prescient as it was brave and heroic.” In an op-ed in the San Francisco Gate, Lee defended her vote by rightfully calling the authorization of that war “a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the Sept. 11 events — anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit.”

She was right, as we now know, but she was vilified for her decision by the American people, the media, and even her own colleagues. From The Intercept:

For her lone stance, Lee was deluged with rancid insults and death threats to the point where she needed around-the-clock bodyguards. She was vilified as “anti-American” by numerous outlets including theWall Street Journal. The Washington Times editorialized on September 18 that “Ms. Lee is a long-practicing supporter of America’s enemies — from Fidel Castro on down” and that “while most of the left-wing Democrats spent the week praising President Bush and trying to sound as moderate as possible, Barbara Lee continued to sail under her true colors.” Since then, she has been repeatedly rejected in her bids to join the House Democratic leadership, typically losing to candidates close to Wall Street and in support of militarism.

Just last week, Rep. Lee criticized the Democratic National Committee’s “systematically discriminatory” rules for debate qualification. On the SF Chronicle’s “It’s All Political” podcast, she discussed the once-historically diverse of candidates that had been whittled down to an all-white group of candidates for last night’s debate.

“I’m not a happy camper,” she said “When you establish rules that become systemically discriminatory against people of color, then you’ve got to question your party and how they’re making all these decisions. I don’t like the message it’s sending.”

To hear Lee praised like she was on a stage filled only with white candidates caught the attention of a lot of viewers.

I have absolutely no idea if Lee is interested in switching jobs, but I’m guessing she just jumped to the top of a lot of candidates’ VP shortlists.

(image: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for MoveOn Political Action)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) has a lot of opinions about a lot of things. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband Brock Wilbur and too many cats.