Elizabeth Warren Is the Measuring Stick

And other takeaways from five hours of CNN’s Democratic town halls.

Elizabeth Warren shown on screen answering questions on CNN.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during a CNN Democratic town hall on Monday. CNN

Five candidates. Five hours. Nearly 100 questions posed by dozens of students and three moderators. Two candidates voicing support for President Donald Trump’s impeachment for the first time. Multiple mentions of the Boston marathon bomber. And one creative use of the word Hillary as a verb (from a student pointing out how Sen. Elizabeth Warren could be “held to a higher standard than your opponent for potentially arbitrary or maybe even sexist reasons”). Those aspects and much more were enough to keep the tedium at bay hour after hour during CNN’s back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back town hall. The marathon featured, in order: Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. I binged it all so you didn’t have to. Here’s what I learned.

Elizabeth Warren Is the Measuring Stick

Warren still sits in the middle of the national-polling pack, but Monday offered the latest sign that she’s the candidate leading the conversation. All four of Warren’s fellow town-hallers were asked to weigh in on her new student-debt-forgiveness plan, which she had unveiled earlier in the day, and also whether they believe that the House should begin impeachment proceedings against Trump, a step Warren was the first presidential candidate to call for late last week. Neither topic produced a consensus, but it was Warren’s views that were used as the measuring stick throughout the night, with the CNN hosts often invoking her name in follow-up questions.

“It’s hard to compare where you stand to, you know, Elizabeth Warren,” Anderson Cooper told Buttigieg during an exchange over the policy specifics, or lack thereof, on his website before last night. “It’s sort of like comparing—I mean, you just can’t compare the policy positions.”

Sanders, Harris, and Buttigieg all suggested that, to varying degree, they were open to Warren’s new student-debt plan. Sanders said he hadn’t had time to study it yet, “but I think Elizabeth and I end up agreeing on a whole lot of issues.” Harris said it was “an important conversation to have.” And while Buttigieg expressed some concerns about its scope, he concluded “the theory of it I think makes a lot of sense.” The lone holdout was Klobuchar, who seemed to draw a line at debt forgiveness for only those who go into public service. “I wish I could staple a free college diploma under every one of your chairs,” she told the student audience at New Hampshire’s Saint Anselm College in a not-so-subtle dig at Warren.

Neither Klobuchar nor Sanders appeared any closer to supporting impeachment, but for the first time Harris and Buttigieg came down on the side of beginning the proceedings in the House—albeit with their own caveats. Harris said Congress “should take steps towards impeachment” but added that she was a “realist” who did not believe the GOP-controlled Senate would ever vote to remove Trump from office. Buttigieg later said it was “pretty clear that [Trump] deserves impeachment” but that he’d “leave it to the House and Senate to figure that out.”

Warren still had the clearest answer to the question of impeachment of anyone onstage—and anyone in the field, for that matter. “There is no political-inconvenience exception to the United States Constitution,” she said when asked whether moving to impeach Trump could make it more difficult to defeat him at the ballot box. Taken as a whole, her policy rollout and town hall performance served as a resounding answer to the question of whether she could make the case that Trump should be removed from office and the case for why she should replace him.

The Kids Put Bernie on the Defensive

Sanders has a double-digit lead in the Democratic field among voters under 30, according to the new Harvard Institute of Politics Youth Poll released in conjunction with the CNN event. But that didn’t mean that the students in the audience took it easy on him. Here, for instance, was how one framed Sanders’ support for allowing prisoners to vote:

Sen. Sanders, you have said that you believe that people with felony records should be allowed to vote while in prison. Does this mean that you would support enfranchising people like the Boston Marathon bomber, a convicted terrorist and murderer? Do you think that those convicted of sexual assault should have the opportunity to vote for politicians who could have a direct impact on women’s rights?

Yikes. Bernie didn’t back down, even when moderator Chris Cuomo warned him that he’d probably just given the GOP fodder for a new attack ad. (“I think I have written many 30-second opposition ads throughout my life,” Sanders responded. “This will be just another one.”) The CNN hosts would use that same Boston-bomber framing in questions to the night’s next two guests. Harris said she was open to the idea of allowing prisoners to vote, while Buttigieg said he was not.

The grilling of Sanders didn’t stop there. Check out these other tough questions the kids put to him:

• “If reparations are not part of your plan to end the wealth gap for black people, what is?” (Sanders offered general support for Congress studying reparations and specific support for a plan that would send more federal cash to communities with high poverty rates.)

• “Your tax returns recently revealed that you are, in fact, a millionaire. How would you respond to concerns that your financial status undermines your authority as someone who has railed against millionaires and billionaires?” (“I think your question,” Sanders responded, “should ask, ‘Well, now that you wrote a book, you made money. Is that going to mean that you change your policies?’ ”)

• “How do you rectify your notion of democratic socialism with the failures of socialism in nearly every country that has tried it?” (Sanders again objected to the question: “Is it your assumption that I supported or believe in authoritarian communism that existed in the Soviet Union? I don’t and never have. And I opposed it. I believe in a vigorous democracy.”)

Sanders arguably faced easier questions from Fox News anchors at his last town hall.

No Free Passes for Mayor Pete

What a difference a month makes. Buttigieg stepped onstage at his first CNN town hall on March 10 best known for having a hard-to-pronounce name; he stepped onstage for his second as someone who, in Cooper’s words, had “skyrocketed … to the top tier of the Democratic field.” That increased attention has meant increased scrutiny, and student questioners pressed Buttigieg on two specific actions he took as mayor. The first was his 1,000 Houses in 1,000 Days project to address the abundance of vacant homes in South Bend, Indiana, a policy of aggressive building code enforcement that appears to have disproportionately affected minority homeowners. The second was his decision to fire the city’s first black police chief. Buttigieg defended both actions but conceded neither was handled perfectly. “We learned some things the hard way,” he said.

Near the end of his hour, however, Buttigieg appeared to have won back much of the crowd. He delivered the biggest applause line of the night when Cooper asked him to respond to Richard Grenell, the United States ambassador to Germany, who has accused Buttigieg of pushing a “hate hoax” for questioning Vice President Mike Pence’s moral authority in light of Pence’s anti-LGBTQ views. (Both Buttigieg and Grenell are gay.) “I’m not a master fisherman, but I know bait when I see it,” Buttigieg said. “And I’m not going to take it.”

Kamala, the Conversationalist

In her strongest moment of the night, Harris kicked off her hour by getting specific on gun control. She said that, if elected, she’d give Congress 100 days to pass “reasonable” gun safety laws, but that if that failed, she’d take matters into her own hands by signing an executive order that would mandate background checks for customers of any firearms dealer who sells more than five guns a year, among other things.

But things only got fuzzier from there. Does Harris support Warren’s student-debt forgiveness? “I think that’s an important conversation to have,” she said. What about Sanders’ call to let felons in prison vote? “I think we should have that conversation.” And how about lowering the voting age to 16? “I’m really interested in having that conversation.” Her specificity on guns notwithstanding, Harris frustratingly spent far more of her night calling for conversations about difficult topics than she did trying to lead them.

All in all, CNN’s extravaganza was a lot more absorbing than you would expect, even if you weren’t getting paid to watch it. This was one of the first opportunities voters have gotten to compare five leading candidates in rapid succession in a format friendlier than a debate but far less so than a rally. And while it didn’t expose any major fault lines among those on stage, the differences this far out from the Iowa caucus were nonetheless enlightening. In a primary season that’s certain to get only more boisterous, these kinds of events are worth paying attention to.