Women's Issues Divide The Democratic Field

If Tuesday's election festivities did nothing else, they provided a serious glimpse into the future of the Democratic Party's White House bid. Throughout the evening, Democratic debate candidates became visibly divided into two camps: those who had managed to tackle issues affecting women head-on, and the rest of the field, who failed to even bring up the subject at all. There was a notable difference in the way each camp addressed those issues, with the former managing to speak meaningfully to female voters on a number of topics and the latter group seeming to forget women existed at all. As the hours ticked by, it was easy to see which candidate was which.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton struck early, remarking on her family's long line of smart, capable women, and citing her own granddaughter, Charlotte, as part of the motivation behind her White House bid.

"I'm the granddaughter of a factory worker and the grandmother of a wonderful one-year-old child," said Clinton. "And every day, I think about what we need to do to make sure that opportunity is available not just for her, but for all of our children." Clinton added that she believed in "equal pay for equal work," explaining that both fathers and mothers deserved paid family leave in order to properly care for their children.

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Not content to sit by idly and let Clinton rake in all the credit, Sanders also made sure to tackle the issue of pay equity and paid family leave as well. "In my view," Sanders remarked, commenting on the nation's progress since the Bush era, "what we need to do is create millions of jobs by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, [implement] pay equity for women workers ... and make every public college and university in this country tuition free."

Clinton, agreeing with Sanders on the need to expand government assistance programs, later added that there were "a lot of women on Social Security, particularly widowed and single women" who had become impoverished as a result of a deficient government system, and that they "need[ed] more help."

For much of the debate, Clinton boldly played to her base of female voters, at one point responding to a comment from CNN anchor Dana Bash regarding criticisms about the cost of expanded Social Security and family leave programs by quipping somewhat angrily,

Well, look, you know, when people say that — it's always the Republicans or their sympathizers who say, 'You can't have paid leave, you can't provide healthcare.' They don't mind having big government to interfere with a woman's right to choose and to try to take down Planned Parenthood. They're fine with big government when it comes to that. I'm sick of it.

Clinton and Sanders weren't the only ones touting a woman-friendly agenda, either. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley made sure to step in to comment on his own record of supporting expanded family leave legislation.

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"In [Maryland, during my tenure as governor], we actually expanded family leave, and I have to agree with Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders: The genius of our nation is that we find ways in every generation to include more of our people more fully in the economic life of our country," O'Malley said. "We need to do that for our families, and especially so that women aren't penalized in having to drop out of the workforce ... we would be a stronger nation economically if we [did that]."

In an surprising (albeit welcome) move later in the evening, the Democratic candidates were asked by a Facebook user whether they believed that "black lives matter," to which Sanders offered firmly and unequivocally, "Black lives matter." (Although the question had previously tripped up most of the left-wing candidates during earlier campaign stops, at least two of Sanders' rival candidates, Clinton and O'Malley, agreed.) Expanding on his thoughts, Sanders then remarked on one incident in particular: The case of 28-year-old Sandra Bland, a black woman who was found dead in her jail cell after being arrested for refusing to put out a cigarette during a traffic stop.

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"The reason those words matter is the African-American community knows that on any given day, some innocent person like Sandra Bland can get into a car, and then three days later she's going to end up dead in jail, or their kids are going to get shot," said Sanders, commenting on the oft-dismissed issue of black female victims. "We need to combat institutional racism from top to bottom, and we need major, major reforms in a broken criminal justice system in which we have more people in jail than China — and, I intended to tackle that issue, to make sure that our people have education and jobs rather than jail cells."

Sanders comments were a huge step in the right direction. "I'm so happy that he said her name," tweeted one viewer on Tuesday night, adding the hashtag #SayHerName, which has been used to call out the discrepancies in media reporting of black female victims versus male victims. "She deserves that. Remember Sandra Bland."

Unfortunately, it seemed not all of the Democratic candidates were in on the game plan Tuesday. Aside from simply sliding into the background, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee somehow managed to slowly implode as the evening's debate progressed, with neither managing to drudge up very much relevant material.

For his part, Chafee did briefly mention his pro-choice record in passing, although he failed to discuss the issue further (some of that could have been attributed to his lack of speaking time). And instead of redirecting difficult topics, (refer to his mind-boggling statements about financial deregulation), Chafee fell further into Sanders, Clinton, and O'Malley's shadows.

As for Webb, for whom tonight could have offered a valuable breakout moment, the brutish candidate opted to dedicate the majority of his fleeting time to awkwardly referencing an incident from his time in the Marine Corps when he killed an enemy soldier, and whining about how he hadn't been afforded opportunities to speak, rather than pushing his agenda and speaking out loudly on issues that had the potential to affect women when the subject arose.

By the end of Tuesday's first Democratic primary debate, there were three clear winners on the subject of women's issues, and two candidates who had missed the boat entirely. Luckily, that stark dividing line should prove more than valuable to female voters going forward.