The first Democratic Party primary debate was a long, messy, crowded, two-night clown car. But it did offer something we’ve rarely seen at a presidential debate before: multiple candidates scrambling to take the furthest left position on abortion.
The first night was particularly rowdy. Jay Inslee came out swinging, claiming that he was “the only candidate here who has passed a law protecting a woman’s right of reproductive health.” Amy Klobuchar hip-checked him, noting that “there’s three women on the stage who have fought pretty hard for the right to choose.” Elizabeth Warren pointed to her comprehensive plan to codify Roe v. Wade as federal law. Julián Castro advocated for “not only reproductive freedom, but reproductive justice” for transgender abortion patients, and for the overturn of the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funds from being used for low-income patients’ abortions.
Even on the second night—a more dismal affair by far, where moderators asked only one brief question about reproductive rights before moving on—Kirsten Gillibrand gave a barn-burner of an answer about the fall of Roe v. Wade, one that channeled many feminists’ long-standing rage: “When the doors close and decisions get made, conversations are had about women’s rights, and compromises have been made on our backs. That’s how we got to Hyde, compromises by leaders of both parties,” she spat. Electing a president, she said, was a matter of trust: “Who do you want to be sitting behind that desk when the door closes?”
This was a radical shift from the way abortion is normally talked about in presidential debates, where Democrats have typically done their best to distance themselves from the issue.
At an October 2008 debate, where John McCain said bluntly that Roe v. Wade was “wrongly decided,” Barack Obama offered that “abortion is a very difficult issue, and it is a moral issue and one that I think good people on both sides can disagree on.” He then named abortion restrictions he’d support: He was, he said, “completely supportive of a ban on late-term abortions, partial-birth or otherwise, as long as there’s an exception for the mother’s health and life.” It was a tactic practiced by many winning Democrats before him, and some losing ones—be it the “safe, legal, and rare” language of Bill Clinton, or John Kerry, who when asked in 2004 about how he would respond to a voter who thought abortion was “murder,” went into a spiel about the virtues of abstinence and how much he loved being Catholic, rather than simply saying, “It’s not murder.”
Worse: When candidates are good on reproductive rights, it doesn’t matter, because the question isn’t asked. The 2016 election will likely go down in history as the election that killed Roe vs. Wade. Yet throughout that year’s debates, not a single moderator asked a question about abortion. Hillary Clinton did eventually manage to wedge the topic of abortion into the final debate, with a resounding defense that was widely regarded as one of her campaign’s high points. But given that the “high point” came a few days before people were set to vote, it didn’t matter.
Democrats seem eager to course-correct this year. That’s likely due to any number of factors: the newly conservative Supreme Court, the brutal abortion bans that have been generating so much outrage recently, or the wave of women’s activism that powered the Democrats’ success in the 2016 midterms. The sudden adjustment has made for some rocky moments; there’s always something uncomfortable about a White man shouting that he’s the only one in the room who gets this abortion thing. But if Inslee and the others are pandering, at least they’re pandering to the right crowd.
There are only a few men who seem not to have gotten the memo. Unfortunately for us, they’re the men at the top of the Democratic field. Of the three current frontrunners, Elizabeth Warren was predictably excellent: She’s issued a comprehensive plan to enshrine Roe as federal law, and all she needed to do at the debate was cite chapter and verse. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, however, are each a different variant of hot mess.
Knowing how to talk about abortion is becoming mandatory.
Biden has publicly decried Roe v. Wade, strongly supported the Hyde Amendment, and has likely been one of those back-room compromisers Gillibrand talked about on more than one occasion. He proclaimed as recently as 2015 that “abortion is always wrong.” He was able to escape the question this year in the time-honored way, by pretending it didn’t exist: None of the moderators thought to grill him about it even though he had the worst reproductive rights record of anyone on stage.
Bernie Sanders … well, what to say? Here is a man who bristles at any suggestion he may be sexist and who can point to a long record of pro-choice votes, yet seems completely out of his depth every time he talks about abortion. This time, when Rachel Maddow asked Sanders what he would do to protect abortion access after the fall of Roe v. Wade, Sanders could only say he would appoint pro-choice justices to the Supreme Court—which might have worked four years ago, but which certainly would not work after Roe v. Wade had been overturned. When Maddow corrected him, Sanders sputtered that his Medicare for All plan would cover abortions. It would, but if they were illegal where you lived, that would not help. There’s no reason Sanders has to be so bad at this. His own team tweeted out that Sanders would “codify abortion rights into federal law.” He just didn’t seem to know his own plan, which does not say much for the amount of thought he’s put into it.
But what was striking, in the context of these debates, was that these men’s ignorance wasn’t merely objectionable—it made them look out of touch. In the loud, rowdy, thriving abortion discussion of 2019, candidates—male candidates, even!—are actually competing to be the most passionate, to have the best plans, to present America with language and policy that actually mirrors the priorities of abortion rights activists on the ground. Knowing how to talk about abortion is becoming mandatory. If the men at the top can’t keep up, that “frontrunner” status won’t last long.
Sady Doyle is a feminist, journalist, opinion writer, and the author of three books, including Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy and the Fear of Female Power (Melville House). They live in upstate New York.