Let's acknowledge this off the top.
A certain set of videos, congressional hearings, efforts to defund a large organization and a big announcement from that same agency that it would change the terms of its fetal tissue program have occupied a lot of time and attention over the last few months. But Tuesday night, it seemed as if the words "abortion" and "Planned Parenthood" almost went missing from the first Democratic debate.
In their place were quite a few mentions of another emerging issue: paid leave and family needs.
The Fix checked the transcript. The word "abortion" was never mentioned. A related phrase — "a woman's right to choose" — did come up twice. It happened once when former secretary of state Hillary Clinton used the term to make a point about Republicans' real views of small government. And it came up a second time when former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee was stressing his consistent record on the issues despite multiple party changes. Planned Parenthood came up exactly once. And that happened during the aforementioned Clinton comments about Republicans.
So this really does beg the question: What was really going on here? There are a few possibilities.
The candidates had been warned
Just as the television networks spends weeks, if not months, preparing for a debate, so too do the candidates. Most presidential candidates dedicate hours and hours to practicing their presentation and temper management behind a podium, speaking in sound bites, appearing warm and relatable yet superhuman enough to lead the free world, talking about policy and one's platform without falling back on wonky language that might prompt some voters to zone out. The list does go on.
But it's almost certain that each of the candidates have seen the polling data on abortion. At the very least, they probably understand that even the possibility that any organization sells the tissue of aborted fetuses (something that has not been proven and which Planned Parenthood denies) is an eyebrow-raiser, a stomach-churner and a legitimate and difficult-to-ignore ethical concern. And much of that is true even for those who ardently support abortion rights.
Polling suggests most voters don't support something as big as shutting down the government over funding Planned Parenthood. But how the public feels about abortion keeps shifting.
For that matter, most of the candidates on the debate stage Tuesday have probably been shown tape of the moment that Carly Fiorina's inaccurate but evocative and much-talked-about comments on Planned Parenthood came up during the last Republican debate. And it's very likely that each candidate received some kind of advice to stay away from these issues as much as possible.
It's a political strategy as old as time: Stay away from complicated issues which require a lot of nuanced explanation to avoid appearing cold, ill-informed, dogmatic or, in this case, inhumane.
Paid leave is an issue having its moment
Just as those secretly recorded videos have put a big spotlight on abortion, there have been a series of tragic news stories about time, care and cash-strapped parents falling victim to tragedy. And then there are the studies examining how many Americans have no guaranteed paid leave and how this all helps to spread illness, leads to tragedy and apparently makes many parents very sad or supremely stressed.
And to be clear here, the studies and the science are not just plentiful but clear: A lot of parents are really struggling. Add to this efforts to organize low-wage workers, and the reasons that this moment has arrived — especially in the Democratic Party — become pretty clear. A full 39 percent of workers have no paid sick days at all. None. And that's about 43.5 million people.
At the middle and upper ends of the income spectrum, there's private and public urgency around issues affecting working parents — particularly mothers — the rapidly growing share of highly educated women who are leaving the workforce, and the way in which the cost of child care can sometimes make employment financially unwise.
There's certainly a solid argument to be made that too much of this growing national conversation has focused on women like Yahoo's Marissa Mayer and how soon she and one of her nannies will return to work after the birth of her currently gestating twins. By extension, one can also argue that not enough attention has been paid to women who aren't CEOs struggling to find a private space to use a breast pump and bolster their own and their baby's health. Of course, we're also still struggling to take seriously the concerns of fathers working all kinds of jobs who want to be full participants in raising their kids.
But however flawed or limited, these conversations are happening. And Americans feel strongly about these issues.
For the record, the word "leave" was used in the context of paid or unpaid family or medical absence from work somewhere between 10 and 21 times on Tuesday, depending how you opt to count them. Life-work balance got a mention too.
The United States is alone on this one
This might be hard for the Democrats snapping up those "America is Already Great" hats to grasp, but Democrats have not, since at least the middle of the 20th century, been the party that resists social change or legal reforms that create it.
When it comes to the issue of leave, the United States ranks near the bottom on almost every measure and stands alone among developed countries with advanced economies in mandating exactly no paid maternity or paternity leave. Actually, there are only three countries in the world that don't mandate paid leave or job protections for women immediately after giving birth. Those countries are the United States, Papua New Guinea and Suriname. And only the U.S. and Papua New Guinea fail to guarantee some portion of a mother's pay, according to a 2014 study produced by the United Nation's International Labour Organization division.
It's no wonder Democrats are talking about this issue; it's almost amazing they haven't done it sooner.