The Democratic presidential candidates during Wednesday night’s debate in Las Vegas presented policy views in sharp contrast to those of the Republican candidates. The Democratic candidates, unlike their GOP counterparts, were not asked about attacks on reproductive rights and abortion access.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) were the obvious political heavyweights in the room, while former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee looked to distinguish themselves from each other and the two Democratic front runners.
Foreign policy, economic policy, and gun control were all central topics of debate, while health care and reproductive rights were largely absent.
Only Clinton mentioned reproductive rights as she pivoted from a question concerning paid family leave.
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“It’s always the Republicans or their sympathizers who say you can’t have paid leave, you can’t provide health care,” Clinton said. “They don’t mind having big government interfere with a woman’s right to choose and taking down Planned Parenthood. They’re fine with big government when it comes to that. I’m sick of that. We can do these things.”
Sanders offered a defense of democratic socialism as an alternative to a “rigged economy,” charging that it could be a solution to solving massive income inequality and expanding health-care access, including paid family leave, to every American.
“When you look around the world you see every other major country providing health care to all people as a right—except the United States,” Sanders said. “You see every other major country saying to moms that when you have a baby we’re not going to separate you from your newborn baby because we are going to have medical and family paid leave.”
Clinton defended her progressive credentials and said that she has “always fought for the same values and principles,” but that her positions on several issues have evolved. “Like most people I have a range of views, but they are rooted in my values and my experience,” Clinton said.
Clinton and Sanders dominated the debate stage, as they both spoke for about 30 minutes of the three-hour debate. O’Malley and Webb each spoke for about 15 minutes, but Chafee struggled to make his presence felt, speaking for less than nine minutes.
There were few verbal fireworks during the debate, as the candidates were often cordial and deferential to their opponents. O’Malley challenged Sanders on his voting record on gun control measures, and Sanders shot back that O’Malley was ignoring the political consensus needed to pass legislation.
Sanders received perhaps the largest applause from the debate audience when he came to the defense of Clinton and dismissed the controversy surrounding emails that she sent from a private account during her time as secretary of state.
“Let me say something that may not be great politics but I think the secretary is right—and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” Sanders exclaimed.
“Thank you. Me too, me too,” Clinton added as the audience erupted in applause.
Sanders criticized the media for focusing too much on the email controversy. “Enough with the emails, let’s talk about the real issues facing America,” Sanders said.
Sterling Arthur Wilkins, from Des Moines, Iowa, asked the candidates in a question submitted through debate sponsor Facebook, “Do Black lives matter, or do all lives matter?”
“Black lives matter,” Sanders responded. “And the reason those words matter is the African-American community knows that on any given day some innocent person like Sandra Bland can get into a car and three days later she will end up dead in jail.”
Sanders and Clinton have both faced criticism and protest from activists involved in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the pressure applied by activists is largely credited for Democratic candidates addressing the issues of institutionalized racism and police brutality.
Planned Parenthood Action Fund (PPAF) released a statement that said the debate showcased the Democratic presidential candidates’ commitment to ensuring that women have equal pay for equal work, opportunities to quality education, and access to health care and paid family leave.
“While the candidates focused on multiple significant challenges facing our nation tonight, make no mistake—the issue of women’s access to the full range of reproductive care is on the 2016 presidential ballot and will be greatly impacted by the next President,” the PPAF statement said.