Sanders photo by Gage Skidmore; Clinton photo by Calebr
Tuesday’s first Democratic debate in Las Vegas, hosted by CNN and Facebook, will feature five candidates, in podium order: Jim Webb, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, and Lincoln Chafee. Joe Biden could make a surprise, last-minute decision to join, though he’s not expected. But really, with Webb, O’Malley, and Chafee in the single digits in the polls, the excitement will likely be between Clinton and Sanders.
Here’s what we’ll be listening for:
1. Women and gender equality — Will Hillary trounce Bernie among women?
Hillary Clinton has made women’s rights a central part of her campaign. Not only would she be the first woman to break what she calls “the highest, hardest glass ceiling” to become President of the United States, she is running on women’s issues, reminding voters that she is a mother and a grandmother, calling for paid family leave in a Mother’s Day campaign video, and chiding Republicans for voting against equal pay for women.
Clinton is making more of an explicit appeal to female voters this year, exploiting a yawning gender gap to her advantage (and ditching the advice of 2008 campaign adviser Mark Penn, who cautioned her against turning off voters by running to be “first mama.”)
And she's got a long track record: She was the first U.S. ambassador at large for global women’s issues. In 1999, she became the first First Lady to deliver a speech to NARAL, the National Abortion Rights Action League, saying she would fight to keep abortion “safe, legal and rare into the next century,” (The Clinton Administration mantra on the issue.) As a Senator, she had a 100 percent pro-choice voting record according to NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Feminist issues are economic issues, Clinton points out on the campaign trail. Empowering women, making it easier to combine work and family, and closing the wage gap are the key areas where she says women need to make progress. That resonates with female voters, who rate income inequality and holding onto the American middle class as top concerns.
Bernie Sanders also has a 100 percent pro-choice voting record with NARAL. And he is also an advocate for pay equity, calling it an “outrage that women earn just 78 cents for every dollar a man earns.” In the Senate he proposed legislation to provide paid family and medical leave, paid sick leave, and paid vacation.
When The Progressive asked Sanders about criticisms that he has not been vocal enough on women’s health and the receding access to abortion and birth control, he sounded taken aback, and cited his long record of advocating for women’s rights. He also said,
“Women in this country have a right to control their own bodies and the government shouldn’t be making those decisions. You are right that there has been an attack on women’s health all over. And the federal government has a role to play. I am a strong supporter of women’s health and I will do everything in my power to help protect women’s access to abortion and every kind of birth control."
2. The Latino vote and immigration reform — Will Bernie score any points with Latino voters?
With his appeal rooted in white, liberal voters, one of Bernie’s biggest immediate challenges is in reaching out and engaging with minority Democrats. Hillary Clinton has a clear edge with Latino voters, but can Bernie get in?
In terms of immigration reform, Bernie Sanders record shows he’s long supported legalization for current unauthorized immigrants, including giving them a pathway to citizenship. But his concerns about temporary guestworker programs, which he voiced in terms of resistance to an open borders policy as a threat to jobs for all U.S. workers, got him into a bit of trouble earlier this summer. Sanders has recently made moves to raise his profile in the Latino community, including appointing a new director of Latino outreach, Arturo Carmona, and advocating for extending Obamacare to undocumented immigrants who can pay for it.
Clinton has been leading a charge on immigration reform since the spring — although she has been more conservative on this issue in the past (I know, surprise, right?) — and clearly, Sanders is coming from way behind to gain some name recognition among Latino voters. But his recent efforts to expand immigration reform to include health care may just create some podium drama Tuesday night.
3. Trade — Will Hillary be challenged on her past record on free trade?
Hillary, who, despite her protestations to the contrary, advocated for NAFTA’s passage in her husband’s Administration, according to records of her meetings as First Lady.
Both Clinton and Obama have promised to renegotiate NAFTA. Both have taken increasingly progressive stances on other trade deals, shifting from what one activist calls “ten years of bipartisan, D.C. orthodoxy” that led them to support an agreement with Peru (though neither showed up to vote for it) to opposing recent deals with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia.
Hillary Clinton has come out against a trade pact with South Korea, but as senator, she has voted in support of free trade pacts with Oman, Chile and Singapore, even though she criticized them for what she said was their weak enforcement of international labor standards. In the Senate, she voted for every trade agreement that came up except for the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
4. Guns — Will the candidates get specific on gun control?
Sanders has in the past supported legislation to protect gun manufacturers from liability for gun deaths, but now says he is willing to reconsider that position. He has also previously supported allowing guns in national parks and opposed a five-day waiting period on gun purchases.
Clinton, meanwhile, has offered tepid support for local gun bans and says she’ll work to reinstate a federal ban on assault weapons. She is getting credit for being supportive of stricter controls because of such vague statements as, “I’m going to speak out against the uncontrollable use of guns in our country because I believe we can do better.”
But what does this mean? Will the candidates be pressed to commit to a federal law mandating background checks on all sales? Will they be asked whether they support banning certain types of guns and ammunition, or mandating waiting periods on all gun sales
We’ve been dying—too often literally—to find out.
5. Wall Street — How aggressively will Hillary be challenged by her newfound conversion to fully prosecute financial criminals?
In recent days, Hillary Clinton has been talking tough about how her administration would crack down on wrongdoing in the financial industry, saying, “When people commit crimes on Wall Street, they will be prosecuted and imprisoned.”
Okay, Elizabeth — er, Hillary. But are you really opening the door to criminal prosecutions of the Wall Street players that forced the 2008 recession? And how serious about reform can you be when you oppose reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act, whose repeal under President Bill Clinton allowed commercial and investment banks to combine functions. Both Sanders and O’Malley support reinstatement of the act.
Finally, will the fact that you receive fantastic amounts of campaign support from the financial industry be a factor?
6. Foreign policy — How’s Bernie gonna stand up to a former Secretary of State?
As President Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary racked up a lot of frequent flyer miles and established herself as a key voice on American foreign policy. On the Iraq War, Hillary voted for it, or course, although she later repented of that vote. Bernie was always opposed and has leaned on this to argue that on foreign policy, judgement trumps experience.
Both Clinton and Sanders voted for the initial authorization for the use of military force in Afghanistan after 9/11.
On Syria, Hillary takes a more forward-leaning military position, endorsing a no-fly zone to allow refugees to escape. Bernie rejects this as a road to further fruitless entanglement.
In the “essential” book on Bernie Sanders, the shortest chapter of the book by far is the one on foreign policy. And he’s been criticized for not laying out more for people to hold on to, although he does have the backing of the Veteran’s Affairs Commission. From a progressive point of view, of course, Hillary is far from unassailable. Will Syria prove to be a dividing line?
7. Who will be the new Number 3?
Okay, so we know enough about how these things work to predict with some confidence that one of the three also-rans —O’Malley, Webb, and Chafee—will emerge as a surprisingly serious contender, along with “Who knew?” pronouncements from the punditocracy.
O’Malley, a former Maryland governor, is perhaps the best known. Chafee, a former U.S. Senator and governor of Rhode Island, the most politically eclectic, having originally come to power as a Republican. Webb, a former U.S. Senator from Virginia, is perhaps the most colorful, having vowed, for instance, to “clean out the manure-filled stables of a political system that has become characterized by greed.”