Show of hands on immigrant health care belies a thorny issue (copy)

In this June 27, 2019 photo, Democratic presidential candidates, author Marianne Williamson, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, and Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., raise their hands when asked if they would provide healthcare for undocumented immigrants, during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

For anyone worried an unwieldy crowd of 20 Democratic presidential candidates would be too confusing for voters to sort out, it only took four hours last week for that teeming mob to be reduced to perhaps half a dozen of the most likely contenders.

The candidates attracting the most attention were former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. California Sen. Kamala Harris, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Biden, Sanders and Warren were inevitable based on familiarity and name recognition. Three enhancing their candidacies most with their debate performances were Warren, Harris and Castro. Warren continued casting off President Donald Trump’s racist slur with detailed plans to reduce the economic struggles of working Americans left behind under Trump. Harris created an electric moment by personally challenging Biden’s opposition to busing for school integration. Castro became the leading Latino voice opposing Trump’s cruel, anti-immigration policies separating families and caging children.

The most riveting moment over two nights was Harris personally challenging Biden for collaborating with racist Southern senators to oppose court-ordered busing to integrate schools. Harris said busing allowed her to attend an integrated public school as a little girl.

Biden made matters worse by arguing his opposition was to federal intervention in local education decisions. Biden has certainly backed federal intervention on other issues including ending gun violence. But in the 1970s segregationists used opposition to federal intervention as an excuse to fight court-ordered school integration two decades after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional.

“That’s where the federal government must step in,” Harris insisted. “That’s why we have the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act … because there are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people.”

The surprising candidate in the top tier who is no longer a surprise to anyone is Buttigieg. The national media initially focused on the novelty of a small-city mayor running for president and quickly discovered an extremely articulate candidate. Buttigieg is a Harvard-educated Rhodes Scholar, Afghanistan war veteran and a married gay Christian. His religion allows him to challenge Republicans calling themselves Christians while supporting a president who violates nearly every commandment in The Book. In the debate, Buttigieg declared any party that thinks God approves of tearing apart immigrant families and putting children in cages “has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”

It’s not fair to write off all the other candidates based on a few televised minutes. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and the formerly rising star Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke will still be prominent when the candidates return in different combinations July 30 and 31 in Detroit on CNN. But most of the other former governors, obscure congressmen, the tech guy passing out thousand-dollar checks and that nice woman who wants to conquer Trump’s hate campaign with love will evaporate over the August break.

Stricter qualifying rules in September could reduce the debates to one night a month with eight or fewer candidates. That’s when we’ll begin to see how the candidates really match up against each other. Many of the differences in the first debates were pretty superficial.

The NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo debate moderators attempted to stir controversies among the candidates about whether they supported decriminalizing crossing the border, would provide health care to undocumented immigrants or abolish private health insurance. There’s less to those differences than meets the eye.

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It’s technically a crime to cross the border without proper documentation, but it’s only a federal misdemeanor, although one that carries the serious consequence of possible deportation. Those of us from Wisconsin are aware of this because in 2005, Wisconsin Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner got the House of Representatives to pass a law making unauthorized entry into the U.S. a felony carrying a minimum prison term of 10 years for using fraudulent documents for employment. Sensenbrenner’s bill, which died in the Senate, was one of the sparks beginning mass protests against vicious Republican anti-immigration laws.

Since 1986, public and private hospitals have been prohibited from turning away anyone in the U.S. in need of emergency health care. The ultimate goal of single-payer, universal government health care is to reduce the cost by removing private profits, not to take more expensive health insurance plans away from those who want them.

Even though Trump was flying to Japan on Air Force One, he managed to remind everyone of the importance of finding the strongest possible Democratic nominee to end his horrific presidency. Forty minutes into the first debate, he tweeted his crude, sarcastic comment: “BORING!” It came as the candidates discussed the heart-breaking photograph of the bodies of an immigrant father and his two-year-old toddler daughter who drowned crossing the Rio Grande.

Joel McNally writes a regular column for The Capital Times.

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