Early this year, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told the New York Times why she had decided to run for president: to give a voice in the race to the issues that disproportionately affect women. “I was concerned maybe the rest of the team doesn’t focus on these issues,” she said. “Maybe the rest of the team doesn’t get where they need to go.”
At Thursday’s Democratic debate, the first since Gillibrand dropped out of the race on Aug. 28, the senator was proven right. Over three hours, the 10 candidates onstage barely touched on any of the issues Gillibrand placed at the center of her candidacy. Nobody talked about sexual assault and harassment, paid family leave, or the president’s vicious misogyny. Only a couple of candidates offered brief lines that nodded at child care, gender-based violence, and racial disparities in maternal mortality. Not one mentioned abortion.
This was partly the fault of the ABC moderators. They shepherded lengthy and illuminating segments on climate change, anti-black racism, immigration, and gun violence—and overall, they did a much better job than the previous two sets of debate moderators. But they didn’t ask any of the candidates to speak on the Republican Party’s coordinated assault on women’s health care access, the economic strain caused by our lack of universal paid parental leave, or the looming threat of a Supreme Court poised to overturn or substantially weaken Roe v. Wade.
The omission felt particularly glaring in light of the Trump administration’s recent introduction of a domestic gag rule—a policy that denies federal family planning dollars to any health care facility that so much as refers patients for abortion care. Thursday’s debate took place just days after Planned Parenthood, which has been forced to forgo the up to $60 million it’s accepted every year to offer subsidized contraception, announced that it would close two Ohio clinics amid recent state and federal funding rollbacks.
In post-debate tweets, Sen. Kamala Harris and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke both scolded the moderators for neglecting to ask a question about abortion. But there’s no reason why either of them couldn’t have brought it up on their own. Sen. Cory Booker somehow managed to pivot a question about his vegan diet into an appeal for better health care for veterans. At a moment when states in the South and Midwest are outright banning abortion, when Republican legislators are floating the idea of the death penalty for women who terminate their pregnancies, when conservative news outlets—inspired by actual lawmakers—are suggesting that women with life-threatening ectopic pregnancies simply wait them out until they naturally miscarry, anyone on the debate stage would have been forgiven for changing the subject from their own “professional setbacks” to women’s lives.
Viewers would have thanked them for it. Public support for abortion rights is higher than it’s been in two decades, and Trump-era incursions on women’s rights have Democrats raring to vote. In a recent Supermajority/PerryUndem poll of likely 2020 voters, 78 percent of Democratic women and 74 percent of Democratic men said the recent abortion bans in Alabama, Georgia, and elsewhere were motivating them to “[make] sure I vote in the 2020 elections.”
With that in mind, and considering the fact that our current president is an accused rapist, it would have been nice to have someone talking about gender on the stage. Trump’s election set into motion an unprecedented upswelling of women’s political participation, yielding the largest-ever national protest, record gains in legislative representation, and a presidential approval rating gender gap twice as large as it’s ever been in the three decades pollsters have been measuring it. When the Democratic candidates look into the camera during a debate, addressing voters who desperately want to beat Trump, it’s women they’re talking to.
Or, at least, they should be. Sen. Amy Klobuchar came the closest to picking up where Gillibrand left off, with a remark about her legislation that would force domestic abusers to give up their guns and a quick story about her advocacy to ensure 48-hour hospital stays for women who’ve just given birth. But those tidbits were personal, as were Joe Biden’s mention of the Violence Against Women Act (his favorite shield against accusations of sexism) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s anecdote about being turned down for a teaching job because she was pregnant. No one stepped in with any broader statement about how women are faring under Trump—no urgent call for abortion access, no discussion of how a Democratic president could respond to the gutting of Roe, no reckoning with what it means for young girls and boys to grow up under Trump’s brand of cruel masculinity, no rousing condemnation of the president who’s tried to populate his administration with alleged domestic abusers, accused sexual assailants, and proud sexists.
That’s a huge missed opportunity for candidates who want to show voters how they’ll stand up to Trump. At this critical turning point for women’s rights in America, it’s not enough for Democratic candidates to, say, parrot the party line on abortion; they need to be able to make an affirmative, morally grounded case for it. It’s not enough for them to disavow misogyny; they need to be able to call foul on Trump’s misogyny with practiced conviction. The moderators missed these issues this time around, probably because it’s more fun to see people fight over “Medicare for All” than to watch them emphatically agree with each other about how bad sexism is. The general election debates will demand much more from the nominee on these issues. The candidates should have gotten their practice in last night.
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