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In Democratic Debates, Health Care, Immigration Emerge As Fault Lines


We're going to go back to those two big debates earlier this week. Nineteen Democrats and Independent Bernie Sanders vying to challenge President Trump took the stage over two nights. And, by now, you've probably heard a lot of hot takes on who won and who lost and who had a breakout moment and who didn't. Instead, we'd like to take a few minutes to dig into some of the differences over policy that emerged. We decided to do that because even though the candidates only had a few minutes - really, a minute or two on each topic - that minute or two represent some real differences on issues like health care, guns and immigration. Of course, we won't be able to get to every issue that came up or that's very important, but we're going to start with health care.


ELIZABETH WARREN: "Medicare for All" solves that problem. And I understand. There are a lot of politicians who say, oh, it's just not possible. We just can't do it. It's - have a lot of political reasons for this. What they're really telling you is they just won't fight for it.

MARTIN: That was Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren of course, talking about health care. Joining us to tell us more is Shefali Luthra. She's a correspondent for Kaiser Health News. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

SHEFALI LUTHRA: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So as you heard, you know, health care came up early in the debates. Is there a center of gravity that unites the Democratic field on this?

LUTHRA: Yes. It's very clear - whether you hear Democrats talking about "Medicare for All", "Medicare for All who want it" - that there is a strong desire for universal coverage of some form for broadly expanding access to health care. It's very clear from voters that there's a big concern about being able to afford health care. And candidates, in their own ways, are all trying to address that.

MARTIN: And we'll ask you more about where the voters are versus where the candidates are on that in a minute. Is there a central dividing line among the Democratic field?

LUTHRA: Absolutely. And you saw that very clearly in the debate with the question of "Medicare for All", specifically. And when we say "Medicare for All", we mean the legislation put forth by Bernie Sanders that Elizabeth Warren just backed as well. It's a very specific form of legislation.

You would have one program called Medicare but much more generous than the current Medicare program - no co-pays, no deductibles, no cost-sharing, whatsoever, would cover virtually everything, would leave minimal, at most, room for private insurance. It's very popular amongst the left but gets other Democrats and even some voters a bit more nervous because of the very radical reforms that would implement.

MARTIN: And so what's the other kind of center-of-gravity idea? This other center-of-gravity idea would be - what? - that there would be like a dual system, that you could keep your private insurance, and there would be a more robust sort of government-funded option alongside it? Is that the...

LUTHRA: Exactly. And...

MARTIN: Generally the two ideas in play?

LUTHRA: That's something we heard, for instance, Pete Buttigieg talk about. He called it "Medicare for All who want it." And we have what's called a public option - right? - something very robust put forth by the government. Anyone has the option to buy into this public option if they choose to, or they can stick with the care that they have.

MARTIN: And, finally, where are the Republicans in attacking this? Because we see that, already, some of the third-party groups and the Republicans are attacking specific candidates, saying that they've flip-flopped and so forth. But is there a central line of Republican attack? Is it that these would elevate costs and wouldn't improve care? Like, what are the Republicans saying about what the Democrats are putting forth?

LUTHRA: Republicans are very focused on attacking "Medicare for All", specifically. And we've heard fewer attack lines on the public option. Although, I think if we saw more of that being discussed, it would become another talking point for Republicans. But they focus a lot on what one might hear about Canada.

Are there longer wait times? Is there trouble accessing the highest quality care. What about the taxes? How much would this cost? And those are talking points you'll hear a lot more of, especially as the "Medicare for All" debate continues.

MARTIN: And now we're going to turn to immigration.


JULIAN CASTRO: And this is an important point, you know? My plan - and I'm glad to see that Senator Booker, Senator Warren and Governor Inslee agree with me on this. My plan also includes getting rid of Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

MARTIN: That was former housing secretary and former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro, who's put forward the very straightforward proposal to decriminalize crossing the border. He says that that will make it easier to deal with the humanitarian crisis there.

We wanted to hear how this compares to other ideas on the table, so we've called Julia Preston. She's a contributing writer for The Marshall Project. That's a nonprofit journalism organization. And she spent many years covering immigration for The New York Times. Julia Preston, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

JULIA PRESTON: Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: So fair to say that all the Democrats and Bernie Sanders criticize the Trump administration's approach to immigration, which was and remains a signature issue for President Trump and his supporters. That's correct, right?

PRESTON: Yes, fair to say.

MARTIN: OK. So is there a core Democratic approach other than to say that President Trump's methods are cruel and inhumane and unacceptable? So is there a core Democratic approach in opposition to that?

PRESTON: Well, I think it's notable that every one of the Democrats embraced the idea of a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people. I didn't hear any dissent on the idea of path to citizenship for DREAMers. There seemed to be general support for ending private detention in immigration. And so all of these are pretty straightforward positions for the Democratic Party after years when Democrats seem to be kind of running away from the immigration issue.

MARTIN: So is there a central dividing line among the candidates? Now, you heard Julian Castro say that a number of his competitors agree with him on some sort of key points. Is there a central dividing line among them?

PRESTON: Well, Julian Castro really shifted the terms of the debate with that proposal that you heard in the clip. He challenged everyone on the stage to support that idea, which is to repeal a law that had made it a federal crime to cross the border, illegally, without authorization. And the reason this debate came up was because the Trump administration sent to federal court and prosecuted everyone that they caught crossing the border, illegally. And so when those people were sent to federal court, they ended up being separated from their children. So that statute was at the center of the family separation issue that drew such outrage last summer.

So Julian Castro comes out with this proposal, and by the second night, everyone on the stage agreed with him that there should be decriminalization of border crossing, which is a remarkable shift to the left, I think, among the Democrats. So I think the answer to your question is the whole party seems to be moving to the left in response to the anti-immigrant rhetoric and very tough policies that are coming from President Trump.

MARTIN: And what about the public on this? And by this, I mean we know that President Trump's core supporters seem to agree with him on this. That seems to be the case. But what about everybody else? What about the rest of the public? I mean, during the family separation crisis, when this first came to the fore, we even saw, say, former first lady Laura Bush write an op-ed saying that this is not the American way, that this is not what we want to see. Is there a center of gravity for the public on this? Do we have any sense of what the public thinks it wants to see?

PRESTON: Well, on the day of the first debate, the photo started to circulate of Oscar Martinez, the Salvadoran father who drowned with his young daughter in the Rio Grande. And that image, I think, crystallized where this debate has gone because I think many Americans are outraged and shocked when they see an image like that.

In general, the polling has shown for years that most Americans support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. And most Americans are in favor of immigration and see it as a plus for the nation and not an invasion of criminals, which is the way that President Trump has phrased the issue for his supporters. And so the problem has been that it hasn't been an issue that has been top of mind for a lot of voters. It's not the primary issue for a lot of voters.

And so I think Democrats are accepting the fact and expressing the fact that President Trump has really polarized this issue and made it much more salient for a lot of voters. But you noticed that at the end of the debate, when the candidates were asked what they would do on the first day, Kamala Harris was the only one who mentioned an immigration issue that she would take up on the first day of her administration.

MARTIN: And what was that issue?

PRESTON: She said she would reinstate the program called DACA, which is - gives temporary protection from deportation to DREAMers, to the young immigrants called DREAMers

MARTIN: Finally, let's talk about gun policy.


ERIC SWALWELL: Your plan leaves them on the streets. You leave 15 million on the streets.

BERNIE SANDERS: We ban the sale. We ban the sale, the distribution...

SWALWELL: Will you buy them back?

SANDERS: And that's what I've believed for many years.

SWALWELL: Will you buy them back?

SANDERS: If people want to buy - if the government wants to do that and people want to...

SWALWELL: You're going to be the government. Will you buy them back?

SANDERS: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: That was Congressman Eric Swalwell challenging Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. To talk more about this, we've called James Burnett. He is the founding editor and managing director of The Trace. That's a nonprofit, nonpartisan publication that reports on gun violence and gun safety measures in America. James Burnett, thank you so much for joining us.


MARTIN: So what exactly is Congressman Eric Swalwell talking about there? What exactly does he want to do?

BURNETT: So Congressman Swalwell is talking about his plan for a mandatory buyback on assault-style rifles like the AR-15. Virtually every candidate on the stage on both nights supports a renewed ban on assault weapons. Swalwell says we should have a mandatory buyback where the government gets those out of circulation.

MARTIN: And Senator - New Jersey Senator Cory Booker also has a buyback proposal. He wasn't on the debate stage that night. He was there the night before. What's the difference between those two plans?

BURNETT: Well, the breakdown comes to whether it's a voluntary plan and a mandatory plan, where there would be a real push to pull these guns out of circulation. And Booker differs from the field in a couple of other policies as well.

MARTIN: Like what?

BURNETT: So Senator Booker has a proposal for mandatory licensing for gun purchasers - the idea that if you need a license to drive a car, you should have a license to buy and own a gun. Other contenders in the field - I believe Biden and Bennet, for example - they say that goes too far. They support universal background checks but don't go as far as this licensing for gun owners.

MARTIN: Is there a kind of a center of gravity on the Democratic side about what federal policy should be when it comes to guns or not?

BURNETT: The two big - the center of gravity, really, is around universal background checks and an assault weapons ban. I think probably the most consequential divide, though - and it's early in this race - is whether the candidate has a comprehensive plan for dealing with community gun violence, right? So mass shootings are terrible. They still make up less than 1% of all gun deaths and injuries. It's really community violence that make up the most homicides and injuries. And the question of whether a candidate has a comprehensive plan for that is probably the one that has the potential to make the most difference, you know, in the real world.

MARTIN: But so do they? Who does? I mean, one of the things that I notice is Elizabeth Warren, for example, the Massachusetts senator, has really made a name for herself throughout this campaign with detailed policies on a range of issues. What I heard her say Wednesday night seemed to be that she wanted more research, that she wanted to treat this as a public health crisis. Is there more to it than that, than she had time to say?

BURNETT: Well, we did a survey of the candidates. And, in fact, she left that question blank while answering, really, all of the rest. And so it seems that Senator Warren has yet to articulate a policy for community gun violence specifically, whereas Senators Booker and Harris have talked about directing federal dollars towards community-based interventions that have good evidence behind them, frankly. We have some evidence that shows that there are some things that can work. And maybe they can articulate a plan for putting some resources behind that.

MARTIN: And finally, former Vice President Joe Biden. I mean, he said something that kind of got some people - well, he said a lot of things that got people's attention. But one of the things that he said was that it's not - the NRA is not the problem, it's the gun manufacturers that are the problem. What is he talking about there? He said that there need to be - that all guns sold in the country need to be smart guns. But as one of the moderators point out, there are already 300 million guns in circulation in the United States right now. What is he saying?

BURNETT: He did talk about smart guns. These are guns that would only fire for their owner, so that if a child got ahold of it, if it was lost or stolen and theft and entered the black market, it couldn't be used. And he's saying the gun manufacturers could make these products now. They're not - they won't. They're the problem. You know, that's a that's a piece of it certainly, but I think it falls short of a comprehensive plan.

MARTIN: And so finally, can you say - do most of these candidates have what you call a comprehensive plan? Or is it really as individual as we have just discussed? I mean, we've really - this is the one area in which we seem to really go on person-by-person, and they all seem to really have nuances there.

BURNETT: You know, there's this consensus around universal background checks, consensus around renewing an assault weapons ban. But they haven't gone over that last mile. You know, again striking, though, just to hear candidates sort of interrupt each other and to say to the moderator, wait, wait, I want to talk about guns. That is a big difference from where we were just a few cycles ago in terms of presidential politics. So that seems pretty significant.

MARTIN: That is James Burnett, managing editor of The Trace. It's a nonprofit journalistic organization that covers gun violence and gun safety issues. James Burnett, thank you so much for talking to us.

BURNETT: Thank you.

MARTIN: We also heard from Shefali Luthra, a correspondent for Kaiser Health News, and Julia Preston, contributing writer for The Marshall Project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.