Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders spent much of the last week battling over the Vermont senator's proposal to create a nationwide single-payer health care system. In one of the most important exchanges of Sunday night's debate, they finally hashed it out face to face.
What neither of them would say outright—perhaps because it's not an especially inspiring message for Democrats to hear—is that the question of how best to expand health care access is, at least for the time being, moot. Republicans have a huge majority in the House and will almost certainly continue to control the House in January 2017. But their argument exposed core differences between the two candidates on what the nation's health care system should look like, and how it should be paid for. And it doesn't look like a debate either candidate is about to abandon any time soon.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made a bold pronouncement at Thursday's Republican debate: the founders considered the right to bear arms to be one of the most important constitutional amendments—that's why it was the second one on the list. "I don't think the Founders put the second amendment as number two by accident," he said, adding, "I think they made the Second Amendment the Second Amendment because they thought it was just that important."
But that doesn't make a lot of sense—the Third Amendment (which prevents citizens from quartering soldiers against their will) is not more important than the Fourth Amendment (which prohibits unwarranted search and seizure), simply because it has a lower number. Nor would you be able to find many conservatives who believe the Tenth Amendment, which delegates rights to the states, is somehow the least important of the bunch.
The other problem with this line of thinking is that the Second Amendment as we know it wasn't really the second amendment to be written—it was the fourth. James Madison proposed 12 amendments to the Constitution, but the first two were not ratified by enough states. The original First Amendment concerned the size of congressional districts—not quite as big of a deal in the grand scheme of things as, say, the original Third Amendment (which would become freedom of expression). The original Second Amendment would have prohibited Congress from raising its own pay (it was eventually ratified as the 27th.)
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum offered a spirited defense of mass deportations at Thursday's Republican undercard debate in South Carolina. Only he didn't call it deportation. Instead, he explained, immigration officials would "export America" back to Latin America. Sure, kids who were raised in the United States would be forcibly relocated, but their knowledge of English and capitalism could pay dividends for them down the road in their home countries:
When we say we need to send people back, I mean we send people back. Let me just make one point. I was in Storm Lake, Iowa, the other day near a Tyson's plant. Ninety-one percent of the kids that go to the elementary school there are minority kids. And they said, 'Well, what are you gonna do with all these people, their families, they've lived here a long time.' I said I'm gonna give 'em a gift. I'm gonna give them the gift of being able to help the country they were born in, and we're gonna export America. The education they were able to receive, they learned about the English language, they learned about capitalism, they learned about democracy. You want to stop the flow of immigrants? Let's send 6 million Mexicans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, El Salvadorans back into their country so they can start a renaissance in their country so they won't be coming here anymore!
Hillary Clinton is going after Bernie Sanders on health care reform. On Monday, she warned that his proposal for universal single-payer health care was a "risky deal" that would tear apart the Affordable Care Act and "start over." On Tuesday, her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, followed suit. It's an abrupt shift one month before the Iowa caucuses, but perhaps an inevitable one given Sanders' rising poll numbers.
It's also reverses the tactic her campaign embraced eight years ago. In the 2008 Democratic primary, it was Clinton who found herself on the defensive after then-Sen. Barack Obama's campaign sent mailers to Ohio voters warning that her plan would force every citizen to buy health insurance. In a now-famous moment, Clinton held a press conference to trash the mailer and tell her opponent, "Shame on you":
The Obama mailer was "not only wrong, but it is undermining core Democratic principles," Clinton said at the time. "Since when do Democrats attack one another on universal health care? I thought we were trying to realize Harry Truman's dream. I thought this campaign finally gave us an opportunity to put together a coalition to achieve universal health care."
"This is wrong and every Democratic should be outraged because this is the kind of attack that not only undermines core Democratic values, but gives aid and comfort to the very special interests and their allies in the Republican Party who are against doing what we want to do for America," she continued. "So shame on you, Barack Obama. It is time you ran a campaign consistent with your messages in public. That's what I expect from you. Meet me in Ohio. Let's have a debate about your tactics and your behavior in this campaign."
Then again, Obama's tactics worked—and his campaign promises didn't stop him from making the individual mandate, floated by Clinton, a critical part of his health care plan as president.
But, as racial-justice activist Deray McKesson pointed out in response, Sanders' promise raises a serious question: Is that even possible, considering that the vast majority of the nation's inmates are held in state, not federal, prisons?
The Sanders campaign did not respond to multiple requests for an explanation, but the short answer is that the Democratic candidate couldn't realistically fulfill his promise. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 2.2 million Americans were locked up as of the end of 2013. Of those, only 215,000 inmates (9.6 percent) were in federal prisons. The rest were in state and local facilities. So even if President Sanders abolished federal prisons altogether, the United States would still have more prisoners than any other country by a pretty large margin. China, which is No. 2 in the world, has 1.7 million prisoners. To edge below China, Sanders would need to cut the national prison population by about 25 percent, with most of that coming from places that are outside federal jurisdiction.
To slash the prison population, Sanders' racial justice platform prescribes the following fixes:
We need to ban prisons for profit, which result in an over-incentive to arrest, jail and detain in order to keep prison beds full.
We need to turn back from the failed "War on Drugs" and eliminate mandatory minimums which result in sentencing disparities between black and white people.
We need to take marijuana off the federal government's list of outlawed drugs.
We need to allow people in states which legalize marijuana to be able to fully participate in the banking system and not be subject to federal prosecution for using pot.
We need to invest in drug courts and medical and mental health interventions for people with substance abuse problems, so that they do not end up in prison, they end up in treatment.
We need to boost investments for programs that help people who have gone to jail rebuild their lives with education and job training.
We must investigate local governments that are using implicit or explicit quotas for arrests or stops.
We must stop local governments that are relying on fines, fees or asset forfeitures as a steady source of revenue.
Police departments must investigate all allegations of wrongdoing, especially those involving the use of force, and prosecute aggressively, if necessary. If departments are unwilling or unable to conduct such investigations, the Department of Justice must step in and handle it for them.
There are a lot of good ideas there, but again, it's unclear how it adds up to a 25 percent reduction in national incarceration numbers. Just 16 percent of federal inmates are in privately operated facilities, and the percentage of state prisoners in private facilities is less than half that. The mandatory minimums in question are for federal crimes only. And Sanders' proposal to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level would by his own explanation leave states the option of continuing to ban it. The closest he comes to an explanation of how he'd bring the United States' levels below that of China is by a seismic cultural shift at the state and local level to prioritize treatment for drug offenses and to disincentivize "implicit quotas" for low-level crimes. But that a lot's different from having a plan to get there.
Update: The Sanders campaign sent along this response, emphasizing previously announced plans to form a commission to propose more concrete fixes after the inauguration:
Senator Sanders is committed to accomplishing the goal of the United Stares not having more people in jail than any other. During his first hundred days, he will appoint a commission of criminal justice experts, leaders in the African American, Hispanic, and Native American communities, and others who have had success on the local level in reducing the number of young adults going to jail and in transitioning people out of prison to other settings.
The Sanders Administration will rely on both legislative and executive actions to reorient the criminal justice system. What the campaign has done is lay out just some elements of what those actions would be. We envision this commission would propose even more.