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News Brief: Democrats Debate, Ebola In Congo


A presidential debate, especially with 10 candidates, is at least one part reality show.


But as 10 candidates debated last night, there was some discussion of policies, from immigration to health care. Several candidates took the opportunity to question Joe Biden, who has been leading in polls. Senator Cory Booker went at him on criminal justice and also his role in the 1994 crime bill.


CORY BOOKER: There are people right now in prison for life for drug offenses because you stood up and used that tough-on-crime phony rhetoric that got a lot of people elected but destroyed communities like mine.

INSKEEP: Washington state Governor Jay Inslee attacked Joe Biden on climate change.


JAY INSLEE: Look. We have - these deadlines are set by science. Mr. Vice President, your argument is not with me. It's with science. And unfortunately, your plan is just too late.

GREENE: And Senator Kamala Harris even deflected an attack on her health care policy by pivoting to an attack on Biden.


KAMALA HARRIS: I'm going to go back to Vice President Biden because your plan does not cover everyone in America.

INSKEEP: That is just some of the discussion from last night. And we're going to discuss it here with NPR's lead political editor Domenico Montanaro and political correspondent Asma Khalid. They're both in Detroit. Good morning, guys.



INSKEEP: So one way to look at this, I suppose, is Joe Biden saying, I'm in the center and many other candidates saying, I'm a couple of notches to the left. Is that how you saw it?

MONTANARO: You know, not necessarily completely. I mean, yes, it winds up that he had a lot of the incoming last night. But it wasn't necessarily ideological. A lot of this is because Biden represents what a lot of young progressives see as the past of the party and not necessarily the future. Some of that is ideological and has to do with policy. We talked about something like decriminalization of border crossings, for example. Biden said, look; you've got to stick to the law - that people coming into the country should do so legally and that President Trump is separating families not because of that, but because he's - because of the policy that's coming out of the White House.

INSKEEP: Well, let's listen to an exchange in which Biden is challenged on that very thing. Julian Castro is a candidate who has said, I don't want border crossing to be a criminal offense anymore; I want to enforce the border a different way. And that prompted this response from Biden and then a comeback from Castro. Let's listen.


JOE BIDEN: The fact of the matter is you should be able to - if you cross the border illegally, you should be able to be sent back. It's a crime. It's a crime, and it's not one that in fact...

DON LEMON: Thank you, Mr. Vice President.


LEMON: Secretary Castro, please, your response?

JULIAN CASTRO: First of all, Mr. Vice President, it looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past and one of us hasn't.

INSKEEP: Wow. OK. That's pretty sharp.

KHALID: It is extremely...

MONTANARO: Well - and look...

KHALID: ...Sharp.

INSKEEP: Go ahead, Asma.

MONTANARO: Yeah, it is.

KHALID: Sorry - it is...

MONTANARO: Go ahead, Asma.

KHALID: ...Extremely sharp. And I would say immigration is one of these focal points where we've really seen the Democratic Party change. It is a fundamentally different Democratic Party.

And to Domenico's point, it's not entirely ideological. It is partly strategic. The Democratic Party's members are different than when Joe Biden first entered politics. And I think the most clear way to see this is when you look at voter data. In 1996, three-quarters of registered Democrats were white. By 2017, that number had shrunk to 59%. And that's largely been as white conservatives have abandoned the party. And you look at studies, and you look at what - where Democrats are, on issues of race and immigration, they have moved fundamentally more liberally in the party.

INSKEEP: OK. So - and you think about just that one little example of decriminalizing border crossings. There's a level on which this is just about practicality. Someone like Julian Castro is still talking about deporting people who need to be deported. They're just not charged with a criminal offense. There's the question of optics. How does it sound to voters who don't have a lot of information, if you say decriminalizing border crossings? It gets really complicated. And isn't that also true on health care - maybe even more true when they start talking about the details on a live television stage?

MONTANARO: Well, certainly when you're talking about something like "Medicare for All." Medicare for All is something that's popular with the Democratic base, even as a replacement to private health insurance. But it's not popular with the general election electorate. What they more prefer is the - what we have called the public option, where Medicare is an option for people where they could still potentially keep their private health insurance if they so chose to do so.

And I think that's one of the big divides here, is that you have Biden's campaign telling us that they're looking at a general election electorate and what's popular - and things like decriminalizing border crossings and Medicare for All outright as a replacement to private health insurance, that those things just aren't popular. And certainly, polls do bear that out. But getting through a Democratic primary with that kind of message - much more difficult.

INSKEEP: Guys, we observed that they were all white candidates in the first night of this set of Democratic debates. It was very diverse last night. And what was the conversation like when the subject turned to race?

KHALID: It was a really, I would say, sort of raw conversation in many ways. The conversation, the divide, the debate around court-ordered busing of public schools - this was something that came up in the first debate - this was rehashed again between California Senator Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden.

But the more interesting debate to me was around criminal justice. Joe Biden was criticized for his role in crafting and championing the 1994 crime bill. And Cory Booker really went at him for this and basically said, look; you want to compare records? - because Biden was trying to criticize Booker's record as mayor - I'm happy to compare records.

Booker has been a real - a champion in the Senate of trying to institute reforms on criminal justice. And that is something that - you know, he says Biden, look; you've been - and he's criticized him in the past - this kind of architect of mass incarceration. But to me, it was actually Kamala Harris and her record on criminal justice as a prosecutor that really got a lot of attention. She was criticized by the congresswoman from Hawaii Tulsi Gabbard.


TULSI GABBARD: Senator Harris says she's proud of her record as a prosecutor and that she'll be a prosecutor president. But I'm deeply concerned about this record. There are too many examples to cite, but she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana.


KHALID: This is something that Harris has been really struggling to defend amongst more progressive crowds - is this record of hers as a prosecutor. And it seemed onstage last night that she stumbled. I would say she stumbled so much so that after the debate, she herself came into the spin room to talk to reporters and clear up her record as a prosecutor. And you know, there's kind of an unwritten rule. Candidates don't come into the spin room to talk to reporters.


KHALID: And if they do, that's a sign of damage control.

INSKEEP: So let me ask about that other candidate Tulsi Gabbard, Domenico Montanaro, because she's one of many Democratic candidates who are at the lower end of the polls. Aren't they under pressure now to get themselves into the next round here?

MONTANARO: Absolutely - because this funnel is starting to get narrower and narrower, where you're going to have multiple candidates who potentially could possibly not make the fall debates. And those candidates have a lot on the line, especially in the next few weeks - needing to meet that polling and donor threshold as they try to maintain some national attention.

INSKEEP: Domenico Montanaro, thanks so much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: He's NPR's political editor. And political correspondent Asma Khalid joined us, as well. Thanks, guys.

KHALID: You're welcome.

MONTANARO: Thank you.


INSKEEP: Some other news now - in the Democratic Republic of Congo, people are marking one year since the start of an Ebola outbreak that continues to spread.

GREENE: Yeah, spread a lot. On the 1 of August last year, the World Health Organization confirmed four Ebola cases in the conflict-torn eastern part of the country. Since then, the outbreak has gotten slowly and steadily worse. There have now been 2,700 cases and more than 1,800 deaths from this disease, making this the second-largest Ebola outbreak ever.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jason Beaubien has been following the situation and joins us on the line. Jason, good morning.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

INSKEEP: Twenty-seven hundred cases, 1,800 deaths - that does not sound good.

BEAUBIEN: No, it's not. It's pretty bad. And the number of new cases each week, it is down from this peak that we reached in April. But we're still getting about 80 new cases every week. And one of the great fears throughout this whole thing had been that this outbreak might reach the city of Goma, which is this major transportation and commercial hub of about 2 million people right up against the Rwandan border. Well, this week, a second case turned up in Goma.

This person, he was a mineral miner. He'd gotten sick. And unfortunately, was being cared for by family members at home for several weeks and then turned up in a treatment unit and died yesterday. So obviously, there's great concern that some of those people may have been infected and we may see this virus start to spread in this major city of Goma.

INSKEEP: I just have to ask, Jason. This began, we said, with four cases, and now it has spread to thousands of people. When Ebola starts going, is it inevitable that thousands of people will die? Was this something that was going to happen no matter what the public health response was?

BEAUBIEN: No. Really, it wasn't. After the West Africa Ebola outbreak, the idea was that there were going to be these new treatments. There was a vaccine that has been introduced. Unfortunately, here you've had almost this perfect storm of it occurring in this incredibly poor area with bad health care infrastructure, incredibly volatile region, various militias that have pillaged this region of the Democratic Republic of Congo for decades. And then you have health care workers storming in to try to treat this outbreak, and they were attacked. Some of them were even killed.

The World Health Organization, yesterday, was saying that they've had 198 attacks on Ebola clinics or workers, including seven people killed - treatment units just burned to the ground. So obviously, you know, that would be an incredibly high number of attacks on a health operation, even inside a declared war zone.

INSKEEP: Why would people be burning down clinics that are there to save them?

BEAUBIEN: It's just these incredibly high levels of distrust of outsiders that has developed in this particular part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. You know, it's 1,500 miles away from Kinshasa. Some people think this whole thing is a hoax to further people's political agendas. And that was sort of undermined - underlined when they canceled the presidential election just in the places where there was Ebola - made more people even more distrustful. Some people are jealous about these people who show up in their white SUVs, you know? So there's a lot of issues going on.

INSKEEP: Does this prove that the protocols developed after that West Africa outbreak of a few years ago, that they just don't work?

BEAUBIEN: No. And actually, in this outbreak, a lot of new treatments are being used. And the vaccine seems to have actually have kept this from turning into a really explosive outbreak like in West Africa. We've had 200,000 people vaccinated. And people are saying that that has really done a lot to keep this under control.

INSKEEP: Wow, could have been even worse. Jason, thanks so much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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