Highlights and Takeaways From Last Night’s 2020 Town Hall

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Bernie Sanders (D-VT), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), along with South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, each faced an intense line of questioning from college students and CNN anchors at last night’s five-hour 2020 town hall. The town hall allowed candidates to solidify their stances on hot-button issues, court undecided voters, and carve out their own niches amid an increasingly large and increasingly progressive Democratic field. The town hall provided a forum for critical policy discussions along with debate surrounding the topic of the hour — whether or not Congress should initiate impeachment proceedings against Trump citing evidence of obstruction of justice outlined in Special Counsel Mueller’s newly released report.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)

If there’s anything that sets Klobuchar out from the pack, it’s her centrism among an overwhelmingly progressive range of candidates. She skirted questions pertaining to impeachment, saying that Trump’s actions were “appalling” and warranted consequences, but was unclear about what those consequences would be. She said that she would hold Trump accountable by defeating him in 2020, and that she had faith in herself to do that — a much more cautious response than those of the other candidates.

She dismissed fellow candidates’ student loan debt forgiveness and college tuition proposals as “unrealistic,” instead vouching for smaller measures, like expanding Pell grants, free community college, and enabling loan refinancing. This remained consistent with her moderate record, offering a startling juxtaposition with the policies of some of her more radical competitors.

Klobuchar touted her congressional victories in a purple state like Minnesota, citing her victory last year in 40 of the counties Trump had won. “Every single time I have run, I have won every single congressional district in my state, including Michele Bachmann’s, OK?” Klobuchar said. The crowd remained silent. She added, “That’s when you guys are supposed to cheer, OK?”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)

Elizabeth Warren’s hour-long slot started with a defense of her new student loan debt forgiveness proposal, which would eliminate up to $50,000 in debt for those with household incomes less than $100,000—at a cost of $1.25 trillion. She shouldered criticism with an explanation of one of her core policies: a wealth tax of “two cents on every dollar of the great fortunes above $50 million.” She went on to explain, “Here’s the stunning part. If we put that two cent wealth tax in place on the 75,000 largest fortunes in this country — two cents — we can do universal child care for every baby, zero to five, universal pre-K, universal college, and knock back the student loan burden for 95% of our students and still have nearly a trillion dollars left over.” Warren maintains her position as the most detailed of the candidates, going heavy on policy specifics and offering clear-cut justifications of her views, something other candidates have been attacked for failing to do.

She also tackled meaty questions about how she would handle the sexism faced by Hillary Clinton in 2016. One student squarely asked Warren: “Some people have voiced you getting ‘Hillary-ed’ in the election. So what lessons have you learned from 2016 that will help you to kind of navigate these situations when you might be criticized for something that’s partially motivated by sexism?” Her answer:

That’s a really good question, but if I can, I want to go back before 2016. Can we all just let our hair down here for a minute? This didn’t just start in 2016. Been around for a while.

I’ll tell you when I ran into it big time. I never thought I was going to be in elected politics. I’ve known what I wanted to do all my life. I wanted to be a teacher. I thought that would be my job forever. During the crash I end up down in Washington setting up a consumer agency for President Obama. After I did that for a year, the Republicans said, we’re never going to let her stay and run that thing. I came back to Massachusetts. There was a very popular Republican incumbent. He had high approval ratings, he had a bucket of money in the bank from Wall Street and he had just beaten a woman who was really good and everybody thought was going to win. So I start getting these phone calls from people and they say, Elizabeth, you should run against him for the Senate seat. You should do it. Go ahead. You should do this thing. You’re going to lose, but you should definitely do — these were Democrats calling me. Saying, you should do this. You’re going to lose. All I can say is Democrats, get a better message.

But people said to me, you’re going to lose because Massachusetts in 2011, according to conventional wisdom, was not ready to have a woman senator or governor. We never had. And people said it’s just not going to happen, not at least for another generation.

Now, you can imagine how I heard that. I heard that as, get in this race, right now, which is what I did. So I jumped in the race and sure enough, you know, the early coverage is about what I’m wearing. It’s about my hair. It’s about my voice. It’s about whether or not I smile enough. I didn’t. It was every part of that. This kept up and I thought, you know, look, I’m going to be in this race. I’m going to make something count every single day. So every day when I saw a little girl, I would come up and I’d usually get down, I’m a teacher, and I would say, ‘Hi, my name is Elizabeth and I’m running for Senate because that’s what girls do.’ And then we would pinky swear to remember.

And so every night when I went home, no matter what the day had been like, I would count up how many pinky swears we had done during the day. And I kept getting out there and hammering my message. I kept getting out there talking about what’s happening with working families across the country, talking about how Washington works great for the rich and the powerful, just not working for anyone else, and how we’ve got to fight back against that. So I talked about it every single day and ultimately I went from 17 points behind that guy to beating him by 7.5.

So the way I see it is here we are in a presidential, and it’s the same kind of you stay after it every day.

One might say you persist.

When asked about where she stands on the subject of Trump’s impeachment, Warren maintained her unwavering support for ousting him from office. “There is no political inconvenience exception to the United States Constitution,” she argued. Warren described how failing to appropriately address Trump’s misconduct could set a dangerous precedent for future presidencies and threaten our democracy. “I took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and so did everybody else in the Senate and in the House.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT)

Bernie Sanders’s statement that incarcerated individuals, including the Boston Marathon bomber, should be granted the right to vote drew criticism from both sides of the aisle. In a time when voting rights are becoming a centerpiece of the Democratic agenda, the senator explained that he wants America to have the highest voter turnout in the world, saying, “If somebody commits a serious crime — sexual assault, murder — they’re going to be punished. They may be in jail for 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, their whole lives. That’s what happens when you commit a serious crime. But I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy. Yes, even for terrible people, because once you start chipping away and you say, ‘Well, that guy committed a terrible crime; not going to let him vote. Well, that person did that; not going to let that person vote. You’re running down a slippery slope.”

He was also asked about his controversial record on foreign policy; he referenced the War Powers Resolution, a bipartisan effort co-sponsored by himself and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), which sought to end the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. It was ultimately vetoed by Trump, although Sanders is now calling for the Senate to vote to override it. Sanders owned up to his inconsistent record in the past, saying that “we have to look into the United States’ role in the world as well” just as we might consider issues pertaining to the economy or healthcare.

Sanders took a more cautionary, pragmatic stance on impeachment than Warren. He’s concerned that if we pursue impeachment, that’ll actually work to Trump’s advantage by detracting from fundamental issues that concern Americans, which might in the long run undermine Democratic politics.

But if — and this is an if — if for the next year, year-and-a-half, going right into the heart of the election, all that the Congress is talking about is impeaching Trump and Trump, Trump, Trump, and Mueller, Mueller, Mueller, and we’re not talking about health care, we’re not talking about raising the minimum wage to a living wage, we’re not talking about combating climate change, we’re not talking about sexism and racism and homophobia, and all of the issues that concern ordinary Americans, what I worry about is that works to Trump’s advantage.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA)

Kamala Harris joined Sen. Warren in backing Trump’s impeachment. “I believe Congress should take the steps toward impeachment,” she said decisively given Mueller’s incriminating report finding Trump potentially guilty of obstruction of justice. She added that Democrats must be “realistic about what might be the end result. But that doesn’t mean the process shouldn’t take place.”

In a move that scored with young voters, Harris detailed the specific steps she would take in office to bolster gun control, proclaiming that she would be willing to take “executive action” if Congress hadn’t put in place sensible gun measures within 100 days of her presidency. She expressed her support for renewing the ban on assault weapons, near-universal background checks, expanding federal law that prevents people convicted of domestic violence from purchasing guns, and reversing policy set by the Trump administration that made guns more accessible to fugitives.

When it came to the discussion of felony disenfranchisement and the restoration of voting rights to felons currently serving time, Harris provided a lukewarm endorsement, saying we could “have that conversation,” although she said that we should focus on securing voting rights for felons who have already completed their sentences. Her response was similarly ambiguous when asked about Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s bill to study financial reparations for descendants of slaves, saying that “We should study it and see.”

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg

Rising star Buttigieg has generated staggering levels of Obama-esque enthusiasm one wouldn’t expect from the little-known gay mayor of a small Midwestern city running for president. While his past successes may seem small-scale, he managed to revitalize what was once called a “dying city.” It takes some pluck in itself to run for President of the United States when your only experience in elected office is as the mayor of a city most Americans haven’t heard of, but Buttigieg has defied conventional wisdom and prevailed so far on the campaign trail, amassing widespread support and enthusiasm.

But one ostensible flaw in his campaign thus far is his vagueness in terms of policy, a complaint made even more glaring when compared to Sen. Warren’s depth and granular analysis of knotty issues. It’s a sensible strategy, however—clearly communicating your values and what you stand for without alienating factions of your voter base with specificity, or as Buttigieg put it, drowning voters in “minutiae.” Specifically, Buttigieg’s website is missing a policy section, which he was called out for. “I’ve been pretty clear where I stand … I expect it will be very easy to tell where I stand on every policy issue of our time. But I’m going to take time to lay that out, rather than competing strictly on the theoretical elements of the proposals themselves,” he replied. Buttigieg also mentioned rolling out a tool on his website that would allow users to find speeches and videos of him talking about particular issues based on search words, and the feature was live within minutes.

Buttigieg disagreed openly with Sanders’s position on voting rights and incarceration. “While incarcerated? No, I don’t think so,” he said when asked about whether you should be able to vote while in prison. “I do believe that when you are out — when you have served your sentence — part of being restored to society is that you are part of the political life of this nation,” Buttigieg said. “And one of the things that needs to be restored is your right to vote.” He explained that when incarcerated, however, people relinquish certain civil rights, and it wouldn’t make sense to create an exemption for the right to vote.

He also vocalized his support for impeachment proceedings, since Trump has “made it pretty clear that he deserves impeachment,” but said that he wouldn’t actively advocate for it with his campaign. “I’m also going to leave it to the House and the Senate to figure that out,” he said. “My role in the process is trying to relegate Trumpism to the dustbin of history, and I think there’s no more decisive way to do that — especially to get Republicans to abandon this kind of deal with the devil they made — than to have just an absolute thumping at the ballot box for what it represents.”

While Buttigieg’s ability so far to garner attention despite lacking name recognition initially has been impressive, reminiscent of the buzz surrounding Beto O’Rourke during the midterm elections, his record hasn’t been entirely squeaky clean. As mayor of South Bend, Buttigieg demoted the city’s former police chief Darryl Boykins, who is black, with secretly recorded and undisclosed tapes involved. The recordings allegedly include officers making racist comments about Boykins; Buttigieg said he wouldn’t know what was on them because he hadn’t listened to the tapes for fear they violated federal wiretapping laws. “I was, frankly, a little slow to understand just how much anguish underlay the community’s response,” Buttigieg said of the matter. “It wasn’t just about whether we were right or wrong to be concerned about the federal wiretap act, it was about whether communities of color could trust that communities had their best interest at heart, the more I realized lifting the veil of mistrust between communities of color and our police department had to be one of my top priorities as mayor.”

The real winner of the night, however? Buttigieg’s brushing off of an audience member clearly seeking to coax out a controversy-stirring response from him.

“If me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade,” Buttigieg said at an LGBTQ Victory Fund National Champagne Brunch in Washington earlier this month. “And that’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand. That if you got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me — your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.” Pence didn’t hesitate to respond later in a CNN interview, saying that, “I hope that Pete will offer more to the American people than attacks on my Christian faith or attacks on the President as he seeks the highest office in the land. He’d do well to reflect on the importance of respecting the freedom of religion of every American.” When asked about the heated exchange during the town hall, Buttigieg shut it down masterfully. “I’m not a master fisherman, but I know bait when I see it, and I’m not gonna take it,” he said, a statement that met with massive applause.

Overall, the contest has highlighted a paradigm shift in the Democratic approach to the presidency as the party grapples with lofty concerns moving forward into the upcoming election. Should electability, the new buzzword that’s stemmed from discussions over which candidates are most likely to unseat Trump, take precedence over policy nuances? How heavily do we weigh candidate diversity in a field in which names like Biden, Sanders, and O’Rourke dominate? How can we reconcile establishment politics with progressive ideals when the Democratic Party remains divided from within? While those questions may loom over our heads, the town hall offered some much-needed clarity into where each candidate stands and what each brings to the table, and only time will tell what 2020 holds.

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