Broadly speaking, there was almost no discernible difference between Clinton and Bernie Sanders on immigration. Both candidates expressed their sympathy for the plight of illegal aliens, and stated in no uncertain terms that they would insist upon a pathway to citizenship -- even if it meant bypassing Congress and using executive orders. Throughout, the candidates avoided using the term "amnesty," though that is inevitably the result of any so-called "pathway" for illegals. Clearly, Bernie and Hillary are aware of the political pitfalls that have stymied so many attempts at reform in the past.
Despite that rhetorical caution, however, on the issue of deportations both candidates ventured from standard Democratic National Committee talking points and platitudes about the American dream, launching into a frenzy of outright pandering and promised lawlessness. Pressed by the moderators, Clinton suggested that deportations would end for all "non-criminal" illegal immigrants should she become president. Sanders appeared to agree.
The implications of such a promise are inescapable: if only serious criminals are to be deported, is everyone else who comes to America or is already here illegally allowed to stay? What about newly arrived illegals? Don't they have families too? And what precedent would it set for the country if the commander in chief felt entitled to ignore a huge body of existing federal law?
In their efforts to one up each other as champions of illegal immigrants (all of whom have in fact broken U.S. federal law) Clinton and Sanders dabbled in the fantasy that it is possible to secure our borders without enforcing laws against a vast majority of illegal entrants. They weren't just peddling amnesty on that stage, they were in effect dabbling in open borders.
This may appeal to the far left of the Democratic party right now, but it is kryptonite for independents and voters in swing states in a general election. There's a reason why President Barack Obama waited until after the last midterm election before instituting his DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans) order -- and it's not because he thought it was going to be so popular with the country as a whole.
As for the rest of the debate, it rehashed many of the same minor arguments from previous Clinton vs. Sanders encounters. There was plenty of bluster about Wall Street corruption, the need to "combat climate change" and vague warnings about the endless evils of a Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, which the Democrats have turned into a bogeyman of corruption for the ill-informed. Perhaps recognizing the popularity of Bernie's free public college position, Clinton essentially pivoted toward his position, offering up federal funds directly to students and promising to assist those who've run up student loan debts they now find inconvenient or impossible to pay.
With the sting of her upset loss in Michigan already wearing off, Hillary had what was a reasonable night on the debate stage. But in what must have been the most disingenuous moment of the night, Clinton offered up that "I'm not a natural politician, like my husband." It was a smoothly delivered line from a woman claiming not to be smooth -- and what could be more classically Clinton? Bill would be proud.
Bernie Sanders stuck to his socialist script. He got his message across, once again, about corporate greed and the need for a "political revolution," as he calls it. He even managed a moment of humorous self-deprecation with his Trumpian pronunciation of "yuge." Ultimately, it appears likely he will beat expectations by staying in the race through the spring. But he will not beat Hillary.
Yet in their transparent efforts to court, cajole and beg for the Latino vote, Sanders and Clinton may have created a vulnerability that at least one of them will come to regret. In a Democratic primary, "pathways to citizenship" and "comprehensive immigration reform" play well. When facing the rest of the American people, those terms begin to sound a lot like "amnesty."
If Hillary's answer to the question "who doesn't get to stay in America?" is a blank stare, or some babble about only sending away criminals, history tells us it will be a Republican sitting in the Oval Office in 2017.