Spontaneous Breakout of Spanish-speaking at Debate Turned Into Game of Gamesmanship

Spontaneous Breakout of Spanish-speaking at Debate Turned Into Game of Gamesmanship


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Janet Ybarra
Former Washington Journalist
Contributor on The Bipartisan Press

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Presidential hopefuls Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker each spontaneously breaking out into riffs of Spanish speaking during this week’s Democratic debate is the result of an unusual game of political one-ups-manship between two rivals looking for any means to break out of the middle of the pack of two dozen contenders for the nomination.

Booker, an African American senator from New Jersey, has struggled to get noticed amidst the swelling ranks of Democratic competitors ever since he joined the presidential race in February.

O’Rourke, a former congressman from El Paso, Texas, enjoyed an initially powerful entrance to the campaign in March–but has been floundering for attention ever since.

So it was when both men came together on the debate stage Wednesday evening as part of the first 10-candidate cohort for what would be a two-night event to accommodate 20 of the Democratic presidential contestants: both just itching to finally break out and maybe, just maybe, join the ranks of the few fortunate front-runners.

It began when O’Rourke unexpectedly broke into Spanish mid-answer while responding to a question about tax rates.

“This economy has got to work for everyone. And right now, we know that it isn’t. It’s going to take all of us coming together to make sure that it does,” O’Rourke began.

Then, in Spanish, continued: “Right now, we have a system that favors those who can pay for access and outcomes. That’s how you explain an economy that’s rigged to the corporations and the very wealthiest. A $2 trillion tax cut that favored corporations while they were sitting on record piles of cash and the very wealthiest in in this country at a time of historic wealth inequality. A new democracy that is revived because we returned power to the people, no PACs, no gerrymandering, automatic and same day voter registration to bring in more voters, and a new Voting Rights Act to get rid of the barriers that are in place now. That’s how we each have a voice in our democracy and make this economy work for everybody.”

O’Rourke is Caucasian but has spoken often the Spanish common to his native area as a means to reach out to Spanish-speaking voters and, more generally, demonstrate a comfort with potential constituents of varying cultures.

Then, after moderator Jose Diaz-Balart addressed him with a question about US border policy, Booker began in English with a curt, “Yes,” before he himself went en Espanol for the remainder of his answer.

In Spanish, Booker said, “On Day One, I will make sure that No. 1, we end the ICE policies and the Customs and Border policies that are violating the human rights. When people come to this country, they do not leave their human rights at the border. No. 2, I will make sure that we reinstate DACA, that we reinstate pathways to citizenship for DACA recipients, and to make sure that people that are here on temporary protected status can stay and remain here. And then finally, we need to make sure that we address the issues that made Oscar and Valeria come in the first place by making major investments in the Northern Triangle, not like this president is doing by ripping away the resources that we need to actually solve this problem.”

Booker’s mention of “Oscar and Valeria” was a reference to a Salvadoran migrant and his 23-month-old daughter who both drowned Sunday trying to enter the United States.

Speaking to him after the debate concluded, MSNBC political commentator Chris Matthews mentioned to Booker that those in the auditorium noticed the odd expression which appeared on his face as soon as O’Rourke broke into his Spanish riff.

“He threw down the gauntlet and I had to respond,” Booker said. “There are a number of bilingual people on that stage and it was Beto —”

“Your look on there, ‘What the heck is going on here?’ I just think it’s interesting. I guess this is going to progress now,” Matthews interjected.

“Well, you know, I was listening to him, and I was like, ‘Okay, fine. It’s good that he’s showing that. We all need to,'” Booker replied.

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