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These Key Issues Took Center Stage At The New Hampshire Debates

The candidates finally spoke about the opioid crisis — but five minutes wasn't enough time to tackle the issue

By Ella Cerón and Lauren Rearick

Despite the surprising amount of unity, laughter, and even a hug that began Friday (February 7) evening’s Democratic presidential primary debate, the night quickly gave way to contention and personal attacks.

In the first debate since Monday’s Iowa caucuses, seven qualifying candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden, former mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senators Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, along with businessmen  Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang — gathered in Manchester, New Hampshire to make their case to voters ahead of the state’s Democratic primary on Tuesday (February 11).

Before the candidates dug into the issues, they addressed recent events, including the careening  aftermath of last Tuesday’s Iowa caucus. Biden admitted that he“took a hit” in the state, and prematurely predicted the same results for New Hampshire, while Sanders applauded younger voters for their increased turnout.

Turning their attention to this week’s acquittal of President Donald Trump, Warren promised that if elected, she intended to follow through on the creation of an independent task force that would investigate the Trump administration. None of her fellow candidates expressed the same intentions, but Sanders and Steyers did call out the Republican party. “The saddest aspect of this whole thing is you have Republicans in the Senate who knew better. They knew that Donald Trump is a crook. They knew that Donald Trump is a cheat,” Sanders said.

With the candidates officially caught up on what went down since their last debate, the focus turned to key issues, including abortion rights, climate change, and America’s ongoing opiod crisis. Below, catch up on the biggest issues from the New Hampshire Democatic debate stage.

Abortion Rights

Friday’s debate saw the candidates finally addressing abortion rights at length. Although previous debates touched on the matter, moderator questions about the topic have remained relatively scarce, Media Matters for America notes. The lack of abortion-related debate conversations had also caught the attention of voters and reproductive health organiations like Planned Parenthood, who harnessed the hashtag #AskAboutAbortion in an effort to bring the issue of access and rights to the debate.

On Friday, Biden affirmed his support of an abortion litmus test for Supreme Court judges, ABC News reports; as explained by The Hill, such a test would affirm that any judges nominated to the Supreme Court should disclose their stance on abortion rights prior to being nominated.

Biden argued that a potential litmus test “relates to the fundamental value of the Constitution,” saying that a woman has the right to choose. However, he didn’t make clear what his standards for that test would look like, and that’s important, because he once supported the Hyde Amendment, a measure that prohibits the use of federal funds for abortion services, despite the procedure being legal across the country. He later reversed that support, but his stance on abortion hasn’t always been clearly defined.

Warren, meanwhile, argued that Roe v. Wade should be codified, a view also taken by Sanders and Klobuchar. As MTV News previously explained, codifying Roe v. Wade would allow the ruling to become and stay law throughout federal courts.

“States are heading toward trying to ban abortion outright, and the Supreme Court seems headed in exactly that direction as well,” Warren said. “If we are going to protect the people of the United States of America and we are going to protect our rights to have dominion over our own bodies, then it’s going to mean we can’t simply rely on the courts. Three out of every four people in America believe right now that the rule of Roe v. Wade should be the law...It is time to have a national law to protect the right of a woman’s choice.”

Criminal Justice and Race

During Buttigieg’s tenure as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a Black person was four times more likely than a white person to be arrested for marjuana possession, ABC News reports. ABC News Live anchor Linsey Davis asked the candidate twice about the statistic during Friday’s debate, and both times, Buttigieg dodged a direct answer. “The reality is, on my watch drug arrests were lower than the national average and specifically to marijuana, lower than Indiana,” he noted. Davis disagreed, and instead pointed to an increase, a fact which Buttigieg again disputed.

“One of the strategies that our community adopted was to target when there were cases where there was gun violence and gang violence, which was slaughtering so many in our community, burying teenagers, disproportionately Black teenagers, we adopted a strategy that said that drug enforcement would be targeted in cases where there was a connection to the most violent group or gang connected to a murder," Buttigieg said.

Following Buttigieg’s response, Davis turned to Warren, asking if she believed the mayor provided an answer to the question. Warren responded with a “no,” and then pointed to a need to “rework our criminal justice system from the very front end on what we make illegal all the way through the system and how we help people come back into the community.”

Climate Change

Sanders and Steyer addressed climate change, with Steyer calling it the world’s biggest crisis, ABC News reported. The businessman argued a response required “diplomacy and allies and interaction with other countries,” while Sanders shared his vision for a world that would collectively use its military spending to fight climate change together.

Opioid Crisis

Prior to Friday’s debates, the candidates had discussed little of their plans for dealing with America’s continuing opioid crisis, Vox reports. However, a moderator question directed at Yang gave at least two of the potential presidential candidates a chance to further explain their stance. Unfortunately, with only a five-minute focus on the issue, the spotlight on the issue was limited — and that’s troubling, given an estimated 10.3 million Americans struggled with opioid use in 2018. And while Trump bragged about a decline in drug overdoses during the State of the Union, he really can’t take credit for that shift. (That doesn’t mean he isn’t going to do it anyway — but it should be noted that his administration’s rollbacks of Medicare and other healthcare options will likely make substance use issues worse in other, devastating ways.)

Yang shared his support of supervised consumption sites and a mandated three-day treatment program for those struggling with opioid use. He noted that help should be readily available without the fear of potentially going to prison for reaching out. Klobuchar, who said that opioid manufacturers should be held financially responsible for treatment, questioned how Yang would finance his mandated treatment.

What’s Next?

It won’t be long before the presidential hopefuls gather for another round of debating. As Time reports, two more debates are already confirmed for February 19 and 25. From there, the remaining Democratic candidates are expected to face off only twice more — once in March and once in April — before the party’s 2020 presidential candidate is selected.