The Slatest

The New York Times Asked the Democratic Presidential Candidates the Same 18 Questions. Here Are the Boldest Answers.

Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg photos side by side.
Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Sean Rayford/Getty Images and Alex Wong/Getty Images.

On Wednesday, the New York Times published a collection of interviews with 22 of the 23 Democratic presidential candidates. (Joe Biden declined to participate.) Each candidate was asked the same 18 questions, and while most of their answers simply restated previous positions or avoided any real substance, some ventured away from boring politician speak and offered new or at least interesting answers.

Here is our pick for the boldest answer to each question.

1. In an ideal world, would anyone own handguns?

Boldest Answer: Julián Castro

Castro stood out for saying, clearly, that he thinks we would be better off without firearms altogether:

In an ideal world, people would not own handguns, and there are a number of countries around the world where people do not own handguns—where they’re not permitted—and we see that those countries have more safety, greater safety, less violent deaths and so forth. However, we also recognize in the United States that the Supreme Court in the Heller decision has ruled that people do have the right to bear arms.

Most other candidates took the opportunity to emphasize that they supported “common sense gun reform” either without answering the question directly, or asserting while they want to do what they can to curb gun violence, they don’t support taking away people’s guns, either. “In an ideal world, nobody would feel the need,” said Pete Buttigieg, in what was a fairly typical answer. “But I respect the Second Amendment, I respect the desire for people to have the means for self defense, as long as there are common sense measures.”

2. Would your focus be improving the Affordable Care Act or replacing it with single-payer?

Boldest: None

This was a straight policy question, and each answered with a (for the most part) previously declared position. Here’s the breakdown.

• Improve the ACA: Michael Bennet, Steve Bullock, Amy Klobuchar, Seth Moulton, and Beto O’Rourke
• Replace the ACA with single-payer health care: Buttigieg, Bill de Blasio, Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Tim Ryan, Bernie Sanders, Eric Swalwell, Marianne Williamson, and Andrew Yang
• The remaining candidates—Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren—took a middle path, arguing that it was necessary to protect the ACA while moving toward the eventual goal of a single payer. (John Delaney put forth his own separate plan.)

3. Do you think it’s possible for the next president to stop climate change?

Boldest: Klobuchar

The Times noted in the story that this question was intended to “capture their level of focus on the issue.” In reality, the question worked more to gauge their optimism and sense of agency on the issue. Klobuchar was the only candidate to definitively say it wasn’t possible to reverse course: “You can’t stop climate change, but you can respond to this crisis in a meaningful way that will reduce greenhouse gases.”

The remaining candidates declared they thought it was definitely possible (as long as you have the right can-do attitude), that a committed president could certainly do a whole lot to slow or stop it, or that it would take a collaborative effort (either with the American people or with global partners) but it was still feasible, eventually. Some candidates dodged the question by simply saying how urgent it was to try to do something about it. “I think the next president must take on the issue of global climate change like the humanitarian urgency that it is,” Klobuchar said. “It is the greatest threat to humanity that exists. And so I think that global climate change should be a moonshot for this generation to say we are going to have a green economy in the next 10 years.”

4. Do you think Israel meets international standards of human rights?

Boldest: Buttigieg

I think Israel’s human rights record is problematic and moving in the wrong direction under the current right-wing government. Look, the U.S. can be committed to Israeli security and to the U.S.-Israeli alliance while also guiding our ally in a direction that leads toward peace. And I’m very worried, especially with some of the latest talk about annexation of the West Bank that their government is moving away from peace in a way that is damaging in the long run, to Israeli and Palestinian and for that matter American interests.

Several candidates gave a straight “yes” (Harris, Gillibrand, Delaney, Bennet, Klobuchar, de Blasio), and others sidestepped the question (Booker, Hickenlooper, Bullock, Williamson, Inslee, Swalwell) by discussing their policy positions on Israel. Still others tried to walk a line between criticizing Israel’s behavior toward Palestine and excusing it—Israel wants to do the right thing but could do better (O’Rourke, Castro, Moulton), or Israel is in an extremely difficult position (Warren, Ryan).

None gave full-throated condemnations. Sanders expressed “great concerns” about Netanyahu; Gabbard vaguely mentioned “some challenges with Israel that need to be addressed”; Yang called “some of the actions” they took “deeply problematic” but said he’d “be hesitant” to say they violated human rights.

5. Who is your hero, and why?

Boldest: Ryan

There were a mix of “personal” and “political” heroes to answer this question, but of those who gave personal heroes, only one didn’t name a parent, grandparent, or spouse. Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan declared his personal hero to be Baker Mayfield, quarterback of the Cleveland Browns.

Martin Luther King Jr., the two Roosevelt presidents, and Abraham Lincoln were all listed off multiple times as political heroes. Other candidates mentioned Cesar Chavez, John Lewis, JFK, Walter Mondale, and Shirley Chisholm. Perhaps the lamest answer came from Inslee, who said his hero was “the American voter.”

6. Would there be American troops in Afghanistan at the end of your first term?

Boldest: de Blasio

Pretty much everyone answered by saying “no.” Inslee and Hickenlooper said there would be “few” left at the end of their terms; Moulton said he would only leave troops “with a clear mission to prevent terror attacks, and that’s it”; and Swalwell said the only remaining soldiers would be there to “train and equip” or provide security to the U.S. Embassy.

Only Yang (who said he would remove all troops “if there’s a responsible way to do it”) and de Blasio seemed to admit that it would not be a simple task. “The ideal, of course, would be to remove all U.S. troops,” de Blasio said. “But even if we could get a more stable situation that would allow for fewer troops to be there, that would be a huge step forward.”

(Williamson gets an honorable mention for answering that she “would make no move in Afghanistan until first I spoke to Afghan women.”)

7. How many hours of sleep do you get a night?

Boldest: Gillibrand

Most presidential candidates like to illustrate how hardworking they are by emphasizing how little sleep they get. But Gillibrand’s answer of eight to nine hours pleased some readers, who saw her admission of healthy sleep habits as a refreshing rejection of the idea that exhaustion is something worth bragging about.

O’Rourke, Sanders, and Harris were more predictable in simply emphasizing that they didn’t get enough sleep. Most others said they got six or seven hours a night, but Castro (five hours) and Swalwell (four) stood out as exhibiting particularly unhealthy habits.

8. Do you think illegal immigration is a major problem in the United States?

Boldest: O’Rourke

Several candidates used the question to show their support for immigration of some sort and place themselves in opposition to President Donald Trump. Most said there is something wrong with our immigration system, with solutions that varied.

O’Rourke, a former congressman from El Paso, was one of a handful who rejected the idea that illegal immigration is a “major problem,” but he responded most definitively—a simple “no.” He explained that he thinks undocumented immigrants are a strong part of the U.S. economy and culture: “Undocumented immigration is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for us to rewrite our laws that are in accord with our values.”

9. Where would you go on your first international trip as president?

Boldest: Warren

Warren’s answer to this question, Central America, essentially piggy-backed off the previous one about immigration: “I think I’d go down to where there are such terrible problems that cause people to flee and to meet with people in that region and talk about how we can help them there so that their lives are more secure and stable.” (She said her second trip would be to Afghanistan.) Similarly, O’Rourke gave Mexico, which he called “our most important neighbor” as his answer (a declaration that seems even bolder when compared to Klobuchar’s answer, as she promised to go to Canada first).

Many of the other candidates admitted they were stumped by this question, and several gave some variation on “I would reassure our allies” (with an emphasis on Europe).

10. Describe the last time you were embarrassed. Why?

Boldest: Klobuchar

Several candidates joked that the campaign trail was fraught with potentially embarrassing moments, but Klobuchar was the only one to give a concrete example. She told a story in which she quickly grabbed a change of clothes from her suitcase at the airport after she found out her luggage had to be checked at the gate. “I sit in my seat and this nice guy behind me… goes, ‘Hey, hey, Senator, you left something there in the aisle.’ And it was my rather brightly colored underwear.”

Runners up:
• Warren: “I did this with a child and said something about, ‘It’s really important that we girls stick together.’ The mother said, ‘He’s a boy.’ ”
• De Blasio: “I made a mistake and I wore cargo shorts to the gym. And it happened to be a day when the media showed up.”
• Castro: “I get confused for my brother all the time. … Probably about five to 10 times a day.”
• Inslee, suggesting that somehow he had not experienced any embarrassment at all in the past 50 years: “When I missed a hook shot with three seconds to go against Ballard High School, causing us to lose our game.”

Most of the others either brushed off the question or suggested they embarrassed their kids. Moulton told a truly lame joke. (The punchline involved aliens and hamburgers.) O’Rourke couldn’t come up with anything more than knocking over a water bottle. Booker refused to say what his embarrassing music tastes were. Hickenlooper said he became embarrassed when he said something about farting around his son.

11. Do you think President Trump has committed crimes in office?

Boldest: Swalwell (and Warren)

Swalwell was the only candidate so bold as to say Trump was already looking at consequences for his actions “I think it’s very likely that President Trump has sealed indictments waiting for him, based on testimony that I’ve heard,” he said. #Resistance!

It’s worth noting here that the Times interviewed the candidates at different times, including some before the release of the Mueller report.

In terms of less conspiratorial answers, Warren’s stance was the strongest. Most candidates said they believed it was highly possible, probable, or even certain that Trump had committed crimes in office (mostly obstruction of justice), but only a few (Sanders, de Blasio) said they wanted to look into the possibility of impeachment. And only one—Warren—said she didn’t need an investigation to know Trump’s crimes were impeachable offenses: “I don’t know how anybody reads the 448 pages of the Mueller report and arrives at any conclusion other than we need to start impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump.” (The candidates’ views on this also evolved over time, and some have since started calling for impeachment.)

12. Do you support or oppose the death penalty?

Boldest: Bullock

Bullock said he “support[s] it in limited circumstances.” He was the only person to not say he fully opposed it.

13. Should tech giants like Facebook, Amazon, and Google be broken up?

Boldest: Yang

Most candidates fell into either “yes” or “regulate them more” camps. But Yang protested the idea, suggesting that the tech world was too complicated for traditional rules about markets and that there was no simple answer. “The temptation is to say break them up, which is frankly a 20th-century solution that is a 21st-century problem. There are dynamics in technology, right now, that make it so that competition isn’t always the answer.”

14. Are you open to expanding the size of the Supreme Court?

Boldest: Inslee and Delaney

This was generally a yes (Harris, Gillibrand, Yang, Klobuchar, Bullock, Moulton, and Warren) or no (O’Rourke, Gabbard, Castro, de Blasio, Swalwell, Ryan, Bennet, Booker, Williamson, and Sanders) question, but two candidates gave cheeky answers that they then walked back. “I would be open to giving Merrick Garland a seat, because I think what happened to him was terrible,” Delaney said, before softening the answer by admitting he was only “emotionally supportive” of the idea and that “at the end of the day I don’t favor doing things that really are against the norms in our society just for short-term political reasons.”

Inslee gave an even bolder answer that he walked back just as much. “I’m open to any idea that can make sure a woman’s right of choice is protected,” he said, before explaining the ways he would do that that didn’t involve adding another Supreme Court seat.

15. When did your family first arrive in the United States, and how?

Boldest: None.

These are straightforward biographical facts. Bullock and Inslee were the only candidates who didn’t have an answer.

16. What is your comfort food on the campaign trail?

Boldest: Gillibrand

“A glass of whiskey at the end of the night.”

Runners-up:
• Booker, for being boldly unrelatable: “Veggies on the go.”
• Williamson, for the same reason: “I have no comfort food.”
• Hickenlooper, for a twist ending to his answer: “I do have a sweet tooth, and I will look for those little bowls of M&Ms—or, you know, mints.”

Most of the others gave more predictable answers. Several said fast food and burgers. Harris likes french fries. Warren: chips and guacamole. Swalwell and Castro both said they have comfort drinks (a mocha and an iced tea, respectively). Some said sweets. Klobuchar was the most regional in her tastes with the very Midwestern answer of a baked potato.

17. What do you do to relax?

Boldest: Williamson

Technically not an answer to the question, but Williamson said she used to watch the news to relax, which is … a little unusual in these times. She did say running for president ruined that, which makes sense. But she didn’t say what she does now.

Almost all the other answers can be broken down into three categories: movies and television (Buttigieg said he watched Game of Thrones with his husband and needs a new show); spending time with children (Sanders, the oldest candidate, instead mentioned his seven grandchildren); and exercise and meditation (Gabbard’s answer on this was the most interesting, as she enjoys surfing). O’Rourke, a former member of a punk rock band, said he enjoys listening to music, and Harris said she relaxes by cooking.

18. Does anyone deserve to have a billion dollars?

Boldest: Gillibrand

Pretty much everyone used this question to condemn wealth disparities in the country and the systems that led to them. A few candidates, such as Harris and Klobuchar, did say that the country should be a place where it remains possible to achieve such a fortune (“Sure, this is America,” Swalwell said). But while those more aligned with Sanders suggested we should move away from a country where there are billionaires, Gillibrand gave the most forceful response: “No, no one deserves to have a billion dollars.”