Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt speaks during a campaign stop at the Circle 9 Ranch Campground Bingo Hall, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019, in Epsom, N.H. (Mary Schwalm)
Opinion writer

In the era of President Trump’s egregious lies, bizarre utterances and ignorant assertions, it is difficult to make a big deal about anyone else’s gaffes. However, for Democrats concerned about electability, a statement which frames an issue critical to the base in the least favorable light and hands ammunition to the right certainly qualifies as a problem.

Enter Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who, at a climate-change forum on Wednesday, brought up the so-called Mexico City agreement, a policy position (effective through executive order) that bans aid from the United States going to abortion providers, even if the money isn’t used for abortions. Republican presidents put it into effect; Democrats nix it. So why did Sanders bring this up at a climate-change forum? He was asked to address population growth in the context of climate change.

He should have stopped right there to explain that population growth isn’t the problem it was once thought to be and it isn’t the way to solve climate change; the latter is a problem with our energy sources and policies. Instead, he plunged ahead with this: “Well, Martha, the answer is yes. And the answer has everything to do with the fact that women in the United States of America, by the way, have a right to control their own bodies and make reproductive decisions.” Actually, abortion is an issue of philosophical concern and fundamental rights, but it’s not germane to CNN’s chosen topic. Again Sanders blundered on:

And the Mexico City agreement, which denies American aid to those organizations around the world that are — that allow women to have abortions or even get involved in birth control, to me is totally absurd. So I think, especially in poor countries around the world where women do not necessarily want to have large numbers of babies, and where they can have the opportunity through birth control to control the number of kids they have, it’s something I very, very strongly support.

To be clear, Democrats oppose the Mexico City agreement not because it affects climate change, but because it deprives women of a fundamental right to control their lives. In some countries with very high maternal death rates, it’s a matter of self-preservation.

By the way, this is what many extremists in the anti-immigrant movement — such as the late John Tanton — have used to preach as part of their vision of zero population growth, a Malthusian world of shortages. Whether said by right-wingers in the context of immigration, or by left-wingers in the context of climate change, it’s wrongheaded and easily perceived as racist.

However, Sanders’s formulation smacks of population control by limiting nonwhite births. The antiabortion group Susan B. Anthony List pounced, sending out missives accusing Sanders of preaching a “repugnant ‘solution’ to climate change — eliminating the children of poorer nations through abortion, paid for by American tax dollars.” At a time when progressives have the high ground in abortion politics, citing the cruel and unreasonable abortion bans, Sanders’s remark is, to put it lightly, unhelpful. This is similar to how the phony infanticide issue put Democrats on defense — over a practice that no one defended and would be illegal even under the most liberal abortion rule. As with Sanders, all the issue did was put the target on Democrats’ backs in the battle to determine who gets cast as the most unreasonable side in the abortion fight.

If voters are concerned about giving Trump ammunition by nominating a candidate who will make the election about extremist Democrats instead of his unfitness, they should think how this would play out in the general election. Perhaps Sanders is not sharp enough to avoid substantive mistakes that paint his party’s views in a bad light. Sanders has already teed up the “socialist” issue for Republicans by embracing the term. Now comes the abortion blunder. That’s two strikes. Democrats cannot afford errors like this.

Read more:

James Downie: Biden bumbles while Sanders and Warren score in CNN’s climate town hall

Paul Waldman: Why Democratic ideas will dominate the 2020 campaign

Helaine Olen: What Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have in common

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Bernie Sanders has a smart critique of corporate media bias