Elections change how Americans think and talk. Nowhere was the shift in the conversation more evident than in Las Vegas on Tuesday night at the Democrats’ first debate for the 2016 presidential campaign. Since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, federal immigration law has been pretty much what it was under President George W. Bush, as Congress failed to pass a comprehensive bill to create a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally. But on the CNN debate stage, you’d never know it.
During Democratic 2008 primary debates, candidates routinely, if not exclusively, used the term “illegal immigrants.” In one debate, then-Sen. Obama even used the term “illegal aliens.” During Tuesday’s CNN debate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley uttered the words “illegal immigrants” once — when he talked up his measure to allow immigrants here illegally to pay in-state college tuition. Other than that slip, the Democratic hopefuls and debate hosts referred to those in the country illegally as “undocumented.”
In the 2008 primary, Democrats disagreed about whether undocumented immigrants should be able to obtain driver’s licenses. Obama supported the notion. Then-Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut did not; a driver’s license, he said, is not a right but “a privilege.” At one point, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York said she supported a proposal to issue licenses to New York’s undocumented, but she later withdrew her support. Her campaign sent out a statement that read, “As president, I will not support driver’s licenses for undocumented people.”
During a one-on-one debate with Obama, Clinton asserted that illegal immigration drives down wages and creates job losses. “And I think we should be honest about that,” she said. There was little such honesty at this week’s Democratic debate.
There was a sliver of that old thinking. At one point Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont likened a 2007 comprehensive immigration bill’s guest-worker provision to “semi-slavery.” Then he quickly rejoined the pack in supporting a path to citizenship. He’s not going to fight that old immigration war.
Ditto Clinton, whose position has evolved again; she now supports states issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented residents. Clinton also is big on states’ right to award undocumented college students subsidized in-state tuition. Likewise, she supports states offering Obamacare subsidies to undocumented immigrants.
Eight years ago, there was no Obamacare. If a Democrat wins the White House next year, expect the next president to eliminate the Affordable Care Act’s exclusion of immigrants who are here illegally. When a party controls the White House, that party controls the debate. For the left, Congress’ refusal to pass a big immigration bill is irrelevant.
Near the end of the debate, former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia said he has a great deal of admiration for Sanders — a self-described progressive, socialist and democratic socialist — but also said: “Bernie, I don’t think the revolution’s going to come. And I don’t think the Congress is going to pay for a lot of this stuff.” Wrong. The revolution has come. And Congress won’t pay for it. Taxpayers will.
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