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Fight Night in Florida

In a city defined by Hispanic culture and at risk of disappearing under rising seas, the Democrats’ debate in Miami tackled immigration and climate change—and the candidates faced their toughest questions yet.

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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.

Joe Raedle / Getty       

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.

Joe Raedle / Getty

In closing remarks, Hillary Clinton says she’ll tackle economic barriers. She adds: “I am going to find common ground … and I will also stand my ground.” Bernie Sanders takes the moment to list issues central to his campaign like raising the minimum wage. “In the wealthiest country in the history of the world, if we stand up, fight back, we can do a lot better,” he says.

Puerto Rico is deep in debt and facing a financial crisis. There was a strong commitment from Clinton to help Puerto Rico restructure its debt. However, Sanders tied the issue to Wall Street but did not make a commitment or outline a plan for fixing Puerto Rico’s debt.

These questions are important in advance of Puerto Rico’s own June contest, but they are even more important immediately for the rapidly growing population of Puerto Ricans living in Florida. Many who have left the island during its mass exodus have wound up in Florida, and a viable plan to fix Puerto Rico’s economy, whether it is through new permissions for Chapter 9 bankruptcy or statehood (and then bankruptcy) will both do wonders for Florida given the shared economic ties and will help people who wish to go back to the island but can’t find jobs there.

Frequent liveblog readers will remember my previous notes about the lack of abortion questions in the Democratic debates. At the eighth debate tonight, we came pretty close to finally getting one. But the issue was subsumed within the larger question of Supreme Court nominations, and Clinton only answered that aspect of it. Sanders didn’t get an opportunity to weigh in before the commercial break. An unfortunate approach by the moderators, considering the stakes for millions of women across the country.

Joe Raedle / Getty

A bus plows through a flooded street on September 29, 2015, in Miami Beach, Florida. The city of Miami Beach is in the middle of a five-year, $400 million stormwater pump program and other projects that city officials hope will keep the ocean waters from inundating the city as the oceans rise even more in the future.

It seems like perilous territory for Clinton to paint Sanders as weak on the environment, an issue that he has had a strong record on going back many years. “The Clean Power Plan is something that Senator Sanders has said he would delay implementing, which makes absolutely no sense,” Clinton says, referring to a major pillar of President Obama’s climate agenda. Sanders looks visibly confused in response. Clinton adds that we need to move from “coal to natural gas to clean energy.” Sanders, meanwhile, is beloved by the progressive left as an environmental champion. He supports a carbon tax and has been a vocal opponent of fracking and the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline—areas where Clinton has been shakier.

Jorge Ramos with a “Welcome to Miami” question on Cuba: If president, would Clinton meet with dissidents and Fidel Castro? And would she consider him a president or dictator? “I do think that meeting with dissidents … is important,” Clinton says, adding that both Castros are considered dictatorial.

68 percent of the Cuban population in the United States lives in Florida.

Justin Sullivan / Getty

They’re with her, in Miami.

Florida mayors called on the moderators of tonight’s debate to question the candidates on climate change. They followed up that request, asking how the candidates would move forward. Their answers encapsulate their different ideologies perfectly: Sanders calls for a political revolution. Clinton says she believes she can get a bipartisan consensus on the issue.

“No state has more at stake than Florida” when it comes to climate change, Clinton points out. She’s right. By 2050, sea levels are expected to rise more than one foot with drastically increased flooding, which Miami Beach has already spent $100 million to deal with. In fact, of all the world’s major cities, Miami is the second-most vulnerable to climate change in terms of its assets.

Joe Raedle / Getty

Feelin’ the Bern in Miami.

Both candidates categorically said they would stop deporting children and suggested they would do the same for the families of those children. There are significant legal questions around the authority of any president to decide not to deport different classes of undocumented immigrants. United States v. Texas, which will be argued before the Supreme Court next month, will settle some of those questions. At the heart of these questions are the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents programs, which were implemented by the Obama administration to provide deportation relief for DREAMers and their immediate family members. DAPA was enjoined by a legal challenge from Texas and other states, who demonstrated that states would incur some costs from program benefits, including subsidized driver’s licenses.

With a Supreme Court decision still pending (and uncertain, given the current state of the Court), the Obama administration has not rolled back deportation consistent with DAPA, indicating its legal interpretation of the limits on its own power to act unilaterally, at least until a ruling. Promises from both Sanders and Clinton to roll back deportation of family members of DREAMers stand at odds with this legal interpretation and might prove impossible to fulfill if the Court rules against the White House or defers to the lower court ruling.

When it comes to personality, Sanders is slightly ahead on honesty and trustworthiness among Florida Democratic likely primary voters. A Washington Post/Univision poll found that 46 percent of voters think Sanders is more honest/trustworthy in comparison with Clinton’s 39 percent.

Clinton, asked for the millionth time why people don’t like her, says it’s “painful” to hear that, adding, “I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama.” It’s remarkable to hear her admit this so nakedly, and it’s potentially a winning message for her: She’s saying she keeps doing this despite all the grief and difficulty because it matters to her.

Sanders’s follow-up, however, about Clinton’s speeches for Wall Street firms, illustrates why it’s a tough case for her to make. She has just been part of the system for so long.

“I’m hurt because the father of my children has been deported for not having a license,” an audience member asks the candidates in Spanish. While Sanders says he’ll do everything he can to unite the family, Clinton goes a little deeper. “This is an incredible act of courage that I’m not sure many people understand,” Clinton says, adding  that she too will fight to unite families. What’s different from Sanders, though, is that Clinton is addressing the emotional costs of immigration, something she has done on the campaign trail, as well.

Clinton isn’t answering the question about how the border fencing she supported in legislation is different from the wall Trump wants to build. But she does an effective job of going with the crowd and using it as an opportunity to mock the “beautiful, tall wall” the Republican front-runner wants to build. “It is just fantasy,” she says.

“We have the most secure border that we’ve ever had,” Clinton says. “Apprehensions are the lowest they’ve been in 40 years.” It’s not clear that’s true. American officials have expressed concern about an uptick in apprehensions along the southwest border. I questioned some conventional answers on unauthorized immigration, like building a wall, this week. Read more here.

As Russell notes, it’s interesting to see Clinton working to distance herself from the administration when it comes to immigration policy. A central theme of the Clinton campaign so far has been emphasizing to voters that she would protect and defend much of what President Obama has achieved. The immigration debate highlights the tensions inherent in Clinton’s strategy. It makes sense for her to embrace Obama’s legacy to a certain extent, but liberal voters will look for her to move left and take more progressive positions, too. It’s a tricky line to walk.

Bernie Sanders has been touting his record of protecting workers. Not only is he recalling those moments tonight but he’ll continue to do so ahead of the Florida primary. Sanders’s campaign will run a five-minute Spanish-language ad on Univision , which provides a glimpse into the challenges faces by a female farm worker in  Florida. In the ad, he’s shown giving a speech at NALEO on the plight of the workers.

Sanders points out that he disagrees with Obama on deportations. Much was made of both candidates cozying up to Obama in order to win over African American voters in the run-up to the South Carolina primary. But Latino voters have not always been quite so keen on the president. A poll last year found Obama’s approval rating with Hispanics at 65 percent—an uptick from 2014, when he came under heavy criticism for failing to take executive action before the midterm elections.

Clinton has been sticking pretty close to President Obama’s record, so it is notable that she deviates under pressure from Jorge Ramos who asks if she is going to be “another deporter-in-chief.” Clinton makes a distinction between people who are seeking asylum and people who are in the United States illegally. She criticizes recent raids by the Obama administration to round up migrants who came from Central America in the last couple of years. “I do not have the same policy as the current administration does,” she says.

In the state of Florida, the share of eligible voters of Hispanic origin is roughly 42 percent many of whom are immigrants from Cuba and Puerto Rico. Interestingly, according to recent survey by the Pew Research Center, “illegal” is the first word that comes to mind for most Americans when they think about immigrants, and approximately 54 percent think the current immigration system needs major changes.

The bottom line of the immigration debate: Both Clinton and Sanders have very similar positions now on what’s needed for reform and how to do it. They are attacking each other over where they’ve both been in the past on the issue.

We’re 30 minutes into the debate and the focus has been on on how Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders would approach issues important to Latinos, particularly immigration reform. Here, Sanders has much ground to cover. Last month, a Washington Post/ Univision poll showed Clinton with a commanding lead among Latino voters. And in the Texas primary last week, 71 percent of Latino voters backed Clinton. Based on results from the Nevada Democratic caucuses,  however, Sanders still holds the lead among Latinos younger than 45. Next week, both candidates will be vying to capture the support of the Latino electorate in Florida, which makes up 14.6 percent of the state’s registered voters.

I don’t quite understand how “un-American” has become a euphemism for “racist,” but it’s certainly an interesting turn.

The debate over the 2007 immigration bill is an interesting throwback to the time when many blue-collar unions opposed immigration reform, believing it undermined their workers’ wages. On a day when so much is being made of Sanders’s appeal to Michigan voters with an anti-trade platform, he’s being reminded of the time he chose their political priorities over those of undocumented immigrants.

Clinton says she has been “committed” to immigration reform, recalling a moment in 2007 when Ted Kennedy “led the charge,” saying that she was for it when Sanders was against it. “I am staunchly in favor of comprehensive immigration reform,” she says. Immigration is expected to take center stage at tonight’s debate. It’s a particularly important issue for voters in Florida, where Latinos make make up 15 percent of Democratic voters and 11 percent of Republican voters.

Whether or not Clinton would drop out of the race if she’s indicted, there’s some precedent for her to stay in even if she does face charges. Eugene V. Debs ran on the Socialist Party ticket in the 1920 presidential race while serving a prison sentence for urging resistance to the draft during World War I. He didn’t win any states, but he garnered almost a million votes—about 3 percent of the nationwide total.

Bernie Sanders attacks Donald Trump for leading the so-called birther movement: “No one has ever asked for my birth certificate,” Sanders said, pointing out that his father was born in Poland. “Maybe it has something to do with the color of my skin.”

(Still neither Clinton nor Sanders actually used the word “racist” vis-a-vis Trump.)

Quiet a visual moment just now. Karen Tumulty brings up Clinton's long friendship with Donald Trump, and she laughs. Tumulty then asks, "Is Donald Trump a racist?" Clinton's smile freezes and then slowly disappears. She doesn't answer directly but says, "You don't make America great by taking away everything that makes America great."

So far Hillary has been asked, who gave her permission to use a private email server, if she would drop out of the race if indicted, why she said on the radio that she was “against illegal immigrants” in 2003, and if—based on knowing Donald Trump “for years”—he is a racist. In other words, Univision is not easing anyone into this debate; it’s hard-hitting right away. It’s a marked contrast from other debates—Republican or Democratic—so far.

For Sanders, they have already shown a flip-flop reel from years ago in which Sanders said a guest-worker program would drive down wages for Americans.

Maria Elena Salinas, Jorge Ramos, and Karen Tumulty are no joke.

“Oh for goodness—and it’s not going to happen. I’m not even going to answer that question,” a ticked-off Clinton answers Jorge Ramos’s query on whether she’ll drop out if she gets indicted. The crowd cheers.

“It’s a marathon and a marathon that can only run on an inclusive campaign,” Clinton says. Earlier today, Clinton’s campaign manager Robby Mook told reporters in a press call that it is indeed her strategy to reach out to all states instead of, as Mook said, focusing on a few states as Sanders is expected to do. As Clinton said in her remarks tonight, Mook also touted her commanding lead in delegate counts.

Bernie Sanders starts with a now-familiar refrain, and a dig at Clinton: “It is just too late for establishment politics and establishment economics.”

A tough first question for Clinton: “Where did you fail last night in Michigan?” Clinton points out that she won one of the two states (Mississippi) and more delegates, but she acknowledges the nomination fight will be “a marathon.” Clinton ultimately deflects the question and chooses not to reflect on why she lost.

The last debate was only a few days ago, but much has changed after Bernie Sanders edged out a win in Michigan. “My focus is on more good paying jobs,” Hillary Clinton says in her opening remarks. A win in Michigan gave Sanders a boost moving forward in the presidential primary, but it also revealed where Clinton is falling short. The Vermont senator has delivered a series of attacks against Clinton over the last few weeks on the issue of free trade, which he accuses for eliminating jobs. Clinton has stood by it nonetheless, but her campaign highlighted in a press call on Wednesday that they’ll need to further highlight her economic argument. Exit polls in Michigan on Tuesday showed that about 56 percent of voters in Michigan believe foreign trade takes away jobs. And it’s also a top issue for Hispanics, a large audience for tonight’s debate.

Both moderators have spoken solely in Spanish thus far tonight with a voiceover translation. It comes as no surprise, as Univision, a Spanish-language media outlet, is one of the hosts tonight, along with The Washington Post.