Democrats Lurch Left on Abortion, Immigration, and Health Care in First Debate


Miami — It was supposed to be Elizabeth Warren’s night to shine, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Now in third place behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in the national polls, Warren was the only candidate on stage Wednesday night polling in the double digits (with her Democratic rivals registering somewhere between 0.4 percent and 3.3 percent). Nevertheless, both Cory Booker and Beto O’Rourke persisted in speaking more than Warren during the debate. Many more viewers were googling Booker’s name than Warren’s.

That’s not to say that Warren had a bad night. She was poised and got in her populist progressive lines about the need for “structural change” to fix the “corruption pure and simple” that plagues our country and the economy. She went after Big Tech and gave a forthright defense of abolishing private insurance and replacing it with a government plan. “Yes, I’m with Bernie on Medicare for All,” she said. Her defense of abolishing private insurance gave heartburn to some liberals worried about how it will play in a general election. “I am just simply concerned about kicking half of America off of their health insurance in four years,” Amy Klobuchar said at the debate. But Warren’s stance will probably help her continue eat into Bernie Sanders’s base in the primary.

Yet, at other times Warren didn’t seem like quite so bold of a progressive. She dodged a question from moderator Chuck Todd about whether the federal government should do anything more than pass the assault weapons ban to confiscate guns. “Treat it like a serious research problem,” Warren said after Todd pointed out she didn’t answer the question.

The most surprising thing to happen at Wednesday’s debate was that Warren was asked a simple but challenging question about abortion. Early in the debate, NBC moderator Lester Holt asked Warren if she would support “any limits on abortion.” 

Less surprising is what happened next: Warren dodged the question. “I would make certain that every woman has access to the full range of reproductive health care services, and that includes birth control, it includes abortion, it includes everything for a woman,” Warren said, adding that she would appoint justices to uphold Roe v. Wade and work to codify the decision into law. 

“Your time is up, senator,” Holt said, moving on and letting Warren off the hook after she declined to directly answer his question.

In the spin room after the debate, I asked Democratic presidential candidate Tim Ryan, a congressman from Ohio who claimed until 2015 that he was pro-life, if it should be legal to for a physically healthy mother to abort a physically healthy baby at 23 weeks into pregnancy. “Well, very few and far between are later in pregnancy. 99 percent of them are I think 21 weeks and under. We don’t know the circumstances of every pregnancy,” Ryan told National Review. “The government should not be involved at all.” Not even in the third trimester? “Well, we don’t know what’s going on. So let the woman make the decision. Keep the government out of it,” Ryan replied. 

Julian Castro, former San Antonio mayor and Obama HUD secretary contributed to the abortion debate by pointing out that he supports taxpayer-funded abortions for transgender women: “I don’t believe only in reproductive freedom, I believe in reproductive justice. And what that means is just because a woman, or let’s also not forget someone in the trans community — a trans female — is poor, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t exercise that right to choose.” It was not immediately clear whether Castro simply misspoke and made an unwoke gaffe by supporting abortion for a “trans female” — that is, a biological man who identifies as a woman — or had reached some transcendent level of wokeness by supporting tax-funded abortions in biologically impossible circumstances.

Castro’s most significant contribution Wednesday night was driving the debate on immigration. He attacked Beto O’Rourke for refusing to support decriminalizing illegal border-crossings into the United States (Warren, Booker, and Tim Ryan all sided with Castro). Castro wants to make illegal border-crossings simply a civil offense, but neither he nor Booker would say precisely what the civil penalty should be.

Doesn’t Castro’s plan sound a little like open borders? “That’s what Donald Trump wants it to sound like. He keeps saying ‘open borders.’ None of us are saying that,” Booker told reporters following the debate. “It used to be, up until very recently, a civil offense, which means you set up civil courts. You put the resources in them that affirm people’s human rights.” That’s not quite accurate. Vox’s Dara Lind, who calls Castro’s proposal the “most radical immigration idea in the 2020 primary,” points out “illegal entry” has been a crime for nearly a century but was not frequently prosecuted until the last two decades. Under Castro’s plan, an immigrant who illegally crossed the border would be released into the U.S. while awaiting a civil trial and possible deportation.

Castro doesn’t look like a serious contender for the nomination, but his passionate defense of decriminalizing illegal entry into the United States may have helped turn the issue into yet another litmus test for the Democratic primary. The issue will be just one difficult question among many that frontrunner Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders will have to address Thursday night.

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