The eighth Democratic debate took place in Miami on Wednesday night, cohosted by a Spanish-language network, and fittingly, the key question that divided Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders was about immigration.
The two Democrats largely agree on what needs to be done now—they support comprehensive reform that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a stop to most deportations, and executive action by the president if Congress doesn’t act.
But in the first half hour of Wednesday’s debate on CNN and Univision, Clinton and Sanders fought vigorously over where each of them stood in years past and particularly during the effort to pass immigration reform under President George W. Bush in 2007. Clinton criticized Sanders repeatedly for opposing the legislation authored by the late Senator Ted Kennedy; she reminded voters that he had criticized its guest-worker provisions as akin to “modern slavery,” and she accused him of standing with Republicans and the Minutemen “vigilantes” who took immigration law into their own hands along the southern border.
“That is a horrific and unfair statement to make,” Sanders responded at one point, taking offense at Clinton’s attempt to paint him at once as cold-hearted and new to the reform effort. He hit back at Clinton by bringing up her opposition in 2008 to providing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants and more recently her call to send home child migrants who had flooded the border from Central America.
Clinton has hugged President Obama pretty tightly in recent weeks as she has campaigned for African American votes in the South, but she distanced herself from the administration on deportation policy on Wednesday night and criticized the raids that were launched to round up Central American migrants who had not been granted asylum. “I do not have the same policy as the current administration does,” she said. Neither did Sanders, who also criticized the recent round-ups. Both candidates pledged to dramatically scale back deportations as president and flatly said they would not deport children in the country illegally.
The question of immigration and deportation policy, of course, is critically important to the many Latino voters in southern Florida, where voters head to the polls next Tuesday. The debate came less than 24 hours after Sanders stunned Clinton with a victory in the Michigan primary, yet neither candidate deviated much in tone or substance from their last matchup Sunday night in Flint.
They were both feisty throughout the two hours, frequently parrying attacks and occasionally interrupting each other. Clinton remains the front-runner for the nomination, and she faced the tougher questioning from moderators Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post and Maria Elena Salinas and Jorge Ramos of Univision.
Clinton was asked to respond to the mother of a victim of the 2012 Benghazi attack who blamed her and other top Obama administrations for lying to the families. Clinton said she had the deepest sympathy for the victims and their families, but she said of the accusation: “She is wrong. She is absolutely wrong.”
Early in the debate, Ramos brought up the FBI investigation into Clinton’s email server when she was secretary of state. He asked if she would drop out of the race if indicted. After initially trying to dodge the question, a clearly perturbed Clinton replied: “Oh for goodness—and it’s not going to happen. I’m not even going to answer that question.”
At another point, Tumulty recounted Clinton’s long friendship with Donald Trump over the years, causing the former secretary of state to laugh. Then Tumulty abruptly asked: “Is Donald Trump a racist?” Clinton’s smile froze and slowly disappeared. She wouldn’t call him a racist, but she said his words and ideas were “un-American.”
Later, Tumulty pressed Clinton again, asking if she bore any responsibility for the fact that just over one-third of voters found her honest and trustworthy. As she has before, Clinton said she was hurt by those responses. “I do take responsibility,” she said, before adding that she tried her best to keep fighting in the face of adversity. “I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama,” she said.
Sanders wasn’t spared, either, although he seemed to get fewer tough questions from the moderators. Late in the debate, however, he was asked to respond to a 30-year-old video in which he praised the record of Fidel Castro in Cuba. He didn’t directly repudiate that position and instead talked up his support for ending the decades-long embargo.
A couple months ago, all the complaints about the Democratic debates centered on how few of them there were and how they were buried on weekends and holidays. That problem is long gone. Wednesday night’s debate was the second this week, and while both candidates brought the same energy, many of their arguments were familiar. Sanders sarcastically mocked Clinton’s ties to Wall Street and her refusal to release transcripts of her speeches to Goldman Sachs, while Clinton criticized his plans as too expensive and unrealistic. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” she said at one point, quoting her father.
Her smooth path to the nomination got a little rockier in Michigan on Tuesday night, and Clinton seemed to be digging in for a longer haul. If the candidates tread new ground, it came on immigration, and at least a partial verdict on that argument will come in Florida next Tuesday night.