3 winners and 3 losers from CNN’s marathon Democratic presidential town hall

CNN’s five-hour Democratic 2020 town hall marathon, featuring hourlong question-and-answer sessions with five candidates, was a long night — and a telling one.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Kamala Harris, as well as South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, each took an hour’s worth of questions from college students in the audience and a rotating cast of CNN anchors. The 300-minute extravaganza covered a lot of ground. It also provided an opportunity, before the debates begin this summer, to make some head-to-head comparisons on matters of both policy and style.

It’s hard to say if any candidate came out a clear “winner,” or what that might even mean with so many months before a single primary vote is cast. But the five town halls, taken together, revealed some bigger truths about the Democratic Party as a whole — and some flaws in the broader conversations about candidates and policy in the campaign so far.

What follows is a kind of guide to the night, focused on big themes and revealing responses rather than individual performances. Who or what came out ahead, and who or what fell behind?

Winner: the progressive movement

Sanders likes to point out that the ideas that were called too extreme and radical in the 2016 presidential election — like free college, Medicare For All and serious economic reform — are now in the mainstream.

That was fully evident Monday night, and then some. The questions themselves, and the candidates’ answers, made clear that whichever candidate Democrats choose will end up running on a much bolder and more progressive agenda on both economic and social issues than seemed possible even four years ago.

Candidates spoke up for single-payer health care, the Green New Deal — a bold progressive agenda on climate change — and free college. Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg all talked about breaking up big corporate monopolies.

“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 debt burden for 95 percent of our students and still have nearly a trillion dollars left over,” Warren said of her plan to tax the wealthy in order to pay for a package of progressive welfare policies.

The proposals now seen as moderate, or those that were contentious among the candidates, were just as telling. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who positioned herself as the moderate option, endorsed a public option in health care, a policy that was on the left of the Democratic Party less than a decade ago.

Candidates debated whether voting rights should be extended to people who are currently in prison. Kamala Harris swore to take executive action on guns. And Harris and Sanders supported legislation that would study the implications of reparations for the descendants of slaves. It was a clearer answer from Sanders who has waffled on the question in the past, saying he doesn’t support just cutting a check.

It’s clear that the leading policies and positions in the Democratic party are being defined by its progressive wing.

Loser: Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton may have faded somewhat from the public eye. Her failed 2016 campaign has not: rather than a touchstone for a new crop of female candidates, it’s become become a byword for the fate that they hope to avoid.

Warren was asked directly, twice, about how she would combat the kind of sexism Clinton faced in 2016. One student question was matter-of-fact: “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 sexist?”

Another student asked Warren how she could measure up to Trump’s bullying: “In particular, are you afraid he can caricature you?”

Warren has been called “aloof” for her focus on policy, and her misleading claims of Native American heritage prompted some to question whether she, like Clinton, would be too scandal-plagued to win. Trump likes to call her “Pocahontas.” Warren brushed off the comparisons Monday night, pivoting to policy and saying sexism in politics isn’t new.

But the term “Hillary-ed” — and its connotations of being an unelectable female politician, whether because of scandals or sexism or being out of touch — is probably not the legacy Clinton hoped for.

Winner: Harvard

One of the weirdest features of the event was that so many of the students asking questions were undergraduates at Harvard University, perhaps the most visible symbol of the American elite there is. There was a clear and obvious explanation —Harvard’s Institute of Politics (IOP) co-sponsored the event, so Harvard students got to ask a lot of questions — but that didn’t make it feel any less strange.

The candidates vying for the leadership of America’s center-left party, debating a host of populist policies ranging from Medicare-for-All to the Green New Deal to reparations for slavery, were questioned by undergrads at a school where the average student’s family makes about three times the national average.

Giving Harvard students privileged access to potential presidents because the wealthy Institute of Policy (which recently gave fellowships to Corey Lewandowski and Sean Spicer) partnered with CNN was an on-the-nose example of power and social status buying political access.

CNN

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, in his insightful book Twilight of the Elites, developed the idea of an “iron law” of meritocracy: “Eventually the inequality produced a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility… those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, and kin to scramble up.”

College admissions — which give preferential admission to privileged athletes, legacy students, and children of big donors — are a clear example of this fundamental problem. Privilege buys access to places like Harvard and thus a gateway to wealth and power. That wealth and power allows your children to attend places like Harvard. Elite higher educational institutions have a lot of virtues, like doing top-notch research, but they also play a role in maintaining America’s class and race hierarchies.

A major premise of this whole town hall, that Harvard can and should play an outsized role in the 2020 campaign and American public life, went unquestioned throughout the night. And that’s too bad.

Loser: Pretty much the entire world

Candidates faced a total of three questions about foreign policy and global politics on Monday night. One was about Israel, one was about US relations with countries that execute LGBTQ citizens, and a third dealt with US preparations for “cyberwar” (whatever that means).

These were important questions, to be sure. But they’re only three questions that covered the entire rest of the planet during a five-hour event.

Nothing about the rising influence of China globally. Nothing about the coherence of the NATO alliance in the face of Trump’s attacks from within and Putin’s pressure from without. Nothing the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, the wave of radical right parties sweeping Europe, or any of America’s several ongoing military conflicts in places like Afghanistan and Yemen .

These are huge issues, affecting millions of lives and (in some cases) the very foundations of global peace. Yet CNN chose not to elevate any students who would ask about any of it; to discuss Yemen, Sanders had to bring it up unprompted. It just felt like the rest of the world didn’t exist.

The obvious problem with this approach is that foreign policy is the area in which the president has maximal authority to act unilaterally.

The ambitious domestic policy initiatives the candidates were being asked about will for most of the night will need to go through Congress, and might fail even in the (seemingly unlikely) event that Democrats win a House-Senate-White House trifecta. By contrast, there are very few effective check on the chief executive’s ability to start wars or undermine international agreements — and the post-Trump era will pose massive questions about America’s basic approach to the world that it has long claimed to lead. Not forcing Democrats to stake out positions on some of these big issues feels like a huge unforced error on CNN’s fault.

And in a related piece of weirdness: immigration, arguably the most politically salient policy issue in America and the West more broadly, got only a single question the entire night. What the hell?

Winner: Student debtors

One of the few questions that every candidate had to address on Monday was what they’d do about student debt — not just for future generations of college students, but for those who have already left school and are still paying their bills.

Most Democratic proposals in the past to deal with student debt focused on tweaks to make life slightly better for people with debt, such as refinancing or adjusting interest rates. The more recent and more ambitious proposals on college affordability, such as free or debt-free public college, would help only future students, not those who’d already borrowed. Any kind of widespread forgiveness for existing debtors who hadn’t entered public service or paid decades of interest already seemed far-fetched — and then, suddenly, it didn’t.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a proposal Monday that would forgive up to $50,000 in student loans for households making up to $100,000 per year, with some forgiveness for households earning up to $250,000. The plan was one of the hottest items under discussion Monday night: Students asked Sanders, Harris, Klobuchar and Buttigieg if they supported Warren’s plan or one like it. If they didn’t, in some cases, they asked why those candidates deserved their votes.

CNN

Some of the candidates endorsed a more incremental approach. Klobuchar and Harris both endorsed allowing people with debt to refinance at lower interest rates and said they worried about the burden of debt on some professions, but stopped short of calling for full forgiveness. Others spoke favorably about the general concept of forgiveness without getting into specifics: Sanders endorsed doing something to “substantially reduce” student debt but didn’t discuss the details of Warren’s plan.

It’s not surprising that college students, who asked the vast majority of the questions on Monday night, would gravitate toward this issue; it doesn’t mean that it will become a defining issue in the race. But Warren’s plan clearly established an expectation that candidates will have to have something to offer to those paying back their loans — and that focusing just on tuition bills for future students won’t be enough.

Loser: Tom Steyer and the campaign to impeach Donald Trump

Bad news for billionaire Democratic activist Tom Steyer, and his group “Need to Impeach” — a political organization that has dedicated the last two years to lobbying Congress to impeach Donald Trump.

Monday’s town hall reinforced what has been the growing narrative on Capitol Hill: Democrats can’t agree on impeachment.

The release of a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report into his campaign’s conduct reignited the impeachment debate last week; the report did not establish a conspiracy between Trump’s camp and the Russian government in the 2016 election, and chose not to reach a conclusion on obstruction of justice. But the report outlined a long series of pieces of concerning evidence, and threw the onus on Congress to make a final determination.

The leading 2020 Democratic presidential candidates weren’t in full agreement on what Congress should do next. Here’s what they said:

Bernie Sanders: “First it goes without saying that the Congress has got to take a hard look at that and do a hard investigation and ask — subpoena the people who were mentioned in that report and get to the truth. Did trump actually obstruct justice? But here is my concern. At the end of the day, what is most important to me is to see that Donald Trump is not reelected president and I intend to do everything I can to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”

Kamala Harris: “I believe Congress should take the steps towards impeachment,” Harris said, which could mean more congressional investigations first.

Elizabeth Warren: “If you’ve actually read the Mueller report, it’s all laid out there…If there are people in the House or the Senate who want to say that’s what a president can do when the president is being investigated for his own wrongdoings or when a foreign government attacks our country, then they should have to take that vote and live with it for the rest of their lives,” Warren said, reiterating her support for impeachment hearings.

Amy Klobuchar: “I believe first of all we need to have hearings in both the House and the Senate and not just with Attorney General [Bill] Barr….if the house brings the impeachment proceedings before us, we will deal with them.”

One candidate endorsing impeachment (and one endorsing “steps towards” it, whatever that might mean) is more than a week ago. But it’s far from the rousing consensus that Steyer and other impeachment supporters might want.