6 key moments from Cory Booker’s CNN town hall

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has struggled to break through in the crowded 2020 Democratic primary. He is campaigning on an aspirational message — love and unity in short — and his policy prescriptions tend to have a more pragmatic bent.

The full spectrum of Cory Booker was on display during a CNN town hall on Wednesday night broadcasting from Orangeburg, South Carolina. He said he would “absolutely” consider issuing mass commutations and pardons for federal marijuana offenses and touted his baby bonds proposal. He praised the Green New Deal for its visionary scope, comparing it to the Apollo missions to the moon.

But he also focused on lowering drug prices instead of pursuing single-payer health care in the near term to fix American health care and urged patience on the impeachment question while America waits to see the full content of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Donald Trump.

Booker was also asked about the Electoral College, something Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently said she was interested in doing away with during her own town hall, and his answer perhaps typified better than any the New Jersey senator’s blend of hopefulness and practicality: he said he believe that the candidate who gets the most votes should win the presidential election, but for now, Democrats have to work on winning the White House under the rules as they currently are.

Here are 6 key moments from Booker’s town hall.

1) Booker would “absolutely” consider mass pardons for marijuana offenses

Booker has been a leading voice on criminal justice reform, and he has authored legislation in the Senate that would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, which has been joined by several of the other 2020 Democratic candidates.

“There is no difference in America between using and even selling marijuana between blacks and whites. But if you’re African-American in this country, you’re almost four times more likely to be arrested for that,” Booker said on Wednesday. “And by the way, when you get arrested for marijuana in this country, it is like getting a lifetime sentence. Imagine this. You now have a conviction for doing things that two of the last three presidents admitted to doing, and you leave now, and you can’t get a business license. You can’t get jobs. You can’t get a loan from a bank. It’s like a lifetime sentence, compressing your economic well-being.”

CNN host Don Lemon asked Booker directly: would he consider issuing mass pardons and commutations as president for people who have been convicted on federal charges for marijuana-related offenses?

“Absolutely,” Booker said. “One of my focuses as president of the United States will be to balancing the scales of justice and having a criminal justice system that reflects our highest ideals.”

2) Booker is frustrated by the Democratic reparations debate

Lemon also asked Booker about reparations for African-American families who are descended from slaves. As Vox’s P.R. Lockhart recently reported, some 2020 Democratic candidates have shown an openness to monetary compensation for those families, a sign of the party’s increasing progressivism on issues of race and structural inequality.

Here is how Booker responded to Lemon’s query about whether he would support “direct monetary payments to black Americans who are descendants of slaves?”

Can I tell you why I’m frustrated by this reparations conversation? It’s because it’s being reduced to a box to check on a presidential list when this is so much more of a serious conversation. Do I support legislation that is race conscious about balancing the economic scales? Not only do I support it, but I have legislation that actually does it. In fact, I’ve got the only legislation, I think, in the entire congress that Columbia University says would virtually eliminate the racial wealth gap in our country. It’s something called baby bonds,

Booker emphasized that white supremacy has been a dominant force in American history but said he’s focused on policies “not only trying to right economic scales from past harms, but to make sure we are a country that creates a more beloved community where all dignity and humanity is affirmed of every single person.”

3) Booker wants to focus on lowering drug prices

Booker, who has both supported Bernie Sanders’s Medicare-for-all but says he doesn’t necessarily want to eliminate private health insurance, got a health care question. He said again that he believes Medicare for all is ultimately the right solution, but also explained that he would focus in the near term on more incremental steps to expand health coverage, like lowering the Medicare eligibility age.

The senator, who has faced some scrutiny for chumminess with the pharmaceutical industry, also said he would focus on reducing prescription drug prices in his first year as president.

He supports allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices; experts have noted the government would need to be willing to restrict access to certain medications in order to achieve real savings. Booker also backs legislation to allow Americans to import drugs from other countries and revoking patents on certain medicines if drug manufacturers hike their prices above what foreign countries are asked to pay.

“Those drugs and expenses you’re talking about, that is outrageous,” Booker told one questioner. “Too many Americans put aside life-saving drugs because they can’t afford them.”

4) Impeach Trump? Booker wants to wait on the full Mueller report

Another audience member told Booker she believed President Trump should be impeached regardless of the findings of Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible coordination with the Russian government. The senator walked a delicate line.

“I understand your sense of urgency and even your sense of disgust about seeing what’s coming from the White House,” he said.

But Booker said that he wants to see exactly what Mueller found before commenting further on impeachment and he pivoted to the 2020 election as the best chance to oust Trump:

We should see that report and make our decisions based upon that. But this is what I’m going to commit to you right now. I’m going to commit to you that we are going to beat Donald Trump, that we are going to have this nation through the electoral process send him packing from the White House because I think there are a majority of Americans who believe just like you do, and I look forward to having the opportunity to lead us to that victory.

Lemon pressed whether impeachment specifically was on or off the table for Booker.

“I don’t think we should come to any conclusions until we have seen the report,” the senator said, noting there are other criminal investigations ongoing into potential criminal activity.

5) Booker is promising to fight the NRA as president

One mother asked Booker about his plan to stop gun violence, particularly in schools, saying she was “terrified” of sending her daughter to kindergarten. Booker, while endorsing popular proposals like universal background checks, also promised he would confront the gun lobby from the White House:

It is so horrific that in America, we have in the aggregate a mass shooting every day because dozens of people are shot and killed. I am frustrated with politicians who all the best they can muster is to give thoughts and prayers. Enough of that. Enough of that.

Booker noted that, in the neighborhood where he lives in Newark, there have been shootings recently. He said he was “tired” of going to funerals and pointed to the disproportionate number of African-American men who died in firearm homicides in the United States.

“If I’m your president, we’re going to bring the fight to the NRA who wants to represent corporate gun owners, manufacturers, more than they want to represent the people because this is what they’re doing to Americans,” Booker said.

6) Booker sounds open to changing the Electoral College

Another question being asked of Democratic candidates these days is whether they support reforming or eliminating the Electoral College, after Trump’s win (and George W. Bush’s in 2000) when Democrats won the popular vote but lost the election. Booker got the question and he sounded open to fundamental reforms.

“I believe very simply that in presidential elections, the person with the most votes should be the president of the United States,” he told the CNN audience, receiving loud cheers.

However, Booker implored the attendees to focus on winning the 2020 election within the current rules right now.

‘It’s nice to hear all this conversation going on, but we have about 595 days to win this election, and the way we’re going to do it is by getting a lot of folks off the sidelines,” he said. “The cure for these anti-democratic problems is not to surrender. It’s to get up, get involved, get engaged, and let’s change it.”