MANCHESTER, N.H. — Five presidential hopefuls squared off in back-to-back televised town halls on Monday night, showing divides in how each Democratic candidate wants to address issues ranging from student debt to the possible impeachment of President Donald Trump.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., took turns on the stage during the event, hosted by CNN, at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. The Democratic candidates are barred from appearing onstage together until the first 2020 debates this summer, according to Democratic National Committee rules.
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The candidates courted millennial and Generation Z voters on Monday night, a bloc that’s growing in size and enthusiasm ahead of the 2020 election. Fifty-eight percent of Democratic voters ages 18 to 29 plan to participate in a primary or caucus in 2020 — a 14 percent increase over the 2016 election — according to a poll released by the Harvard Institute of Politics ahead of the town halls.
Here are some of the highlights of the evening:
On student debt: Klobuchar knocked Warren’s student loan forgiveness plan, saying that expanding Pell Grants, allowing students to refinance loans and bringing back an Obama-era plan for free two-year community college programs was a more realistic way to tackle student debt.
“I wish I could staple a free college diploma under every one of your chairs, I do,” Klobuchar said to the crowd of several hundred college students. “Don’t look — it’s not there. I wish I could do that, but I have to be straight with you and tell you the truth. You deserve more than to be saddled with more and more debt. Everything I have proposed to you I have found ways to pay for it that I think makes sense, that I think can actually get done.”
Shots at Trump: Klobuchar took several shots at the president during her hour onstage, referring to Trump as “Mr. Umbrella Man” in response to his jokes about her 2020 campaign launch in a blizzard. This seemed to be a reference to a viral clip of the president opting not to close an umbrella when boarding a plane in October. When CNN host Chris Cuomo approached Klobuchar onstage while she was answering a question, she evoked Trump again. “I feel you creeping over my shoulder — not in a Trumpian manner,” Klobuchar said.
Getting “Hillary’d”: Warren was asked how she would avoid being “Hillary’d” in the 2020 race, meaning facing increased scrutiny because of sexism. “You stay after it every day — one might say you persist,” Warren said to applause. “You organize, you build a grassroots-movement, you fight for working people, and that’s how I’m going to be the first woman elected president of the United States.”
Impeaching the president: Warren put down a marker on impeachment based on her reading of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, breaking with House leaders who are reluctant to start proceedings to remove Trump from office. “There is no political-inconvenience exception to the United States Constitution,” Warren said, calling on members of Congress to vote on impeachment. “They should have to take that vote and live with it for the rest of their lives.”
The most dangerous president: Sanders called Trump “the most dangerous president in American history“ and a “pathological liar,“ but stopped short of calling for his impeachment. “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 doesn‘t happen,“ Sanders said. “Congress has got to take a hard look at that and do a hard investigation and subpoena the people who are mentioned in that report.“
Getting realistic on impeachment: “I believe Congress should take the steps toward impeachment,“ Harris said. But the California lawmaker said she was a “realist“ when it came to how impeachment would fare in the Senate, which she expects will put partisanship over facts.
Soundbites: Sanders was asked whether people in prison should be allowed to vote, including the Boston Marathon bomber who is awaiting a death sentence connected with the 2013 attack. “I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy — yes, even for terrible people — because once you start chipping away … you‘re running down a slippery slope,“ Sanders said. “Even if they are the jail, they‘re paying their price to society. That should not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy.“
“I’ve written many 30-second opposition ads in my life, this will be just another one,“ Sanders quipped after answering the question. Forty minutes later, the Republican America Rising PAC send a blast email to reporters with with a video of Sanders‘ comments.
Buttigieg disagreed with Sanders’ stance, saying “part of the punishment” is losing certain rights and freedoms while incarcerated. “It does not make sense to have an exception for the right to vote,” Buttigieg said. “I do believe when you are out, when you have served your sentence … one of the things that needs to be restored is your right to vote.”
Who wants to be a millionaire? Sanders addressed the content of his tax returns, which showed he earned more than a million dollars and raised questions about his railing against the wealthy, especially on taxes. “I plead guilty to having written a book which was an international best seller,“ he said. “And when you write a book that makes it to the top of the NYT best-seller list, you make money.”
“I don’t think anyone seriously believes that because I wrote a best-selling book that made money, that changed my views, that you‘ll hear me saying, ‘Gee, why don‘t we give tax breaks to millionaires?‘” Sanders added.
The case for reparations: Harris voiced her support for a bill to study reparations Monday night, pointing to years of slavery, Jim Crow laws and segregation in America.
“To believe or suggest that those years of treatment and abuse and violent and crimes did not have an impact is to overlook the facts of history,” Harris said.
Harris addresses that truancy policy: Harris defended a controversial truancy policy from her time as attorney general in California, saying she took on the issue of inequity in the education system.
“Nobody went to jail. And as a result of our initiative we improved attendance by over 30 percent,” Harris said. “No child should be overlooked and this is what the system does, guys, For certain kids the system really doesn’t expect much from them. That is a harsh reality in many places.”
The dust bin of history: Buttigieg said Trump has made the case for his own impeachment on Monday night. “I think he’s made it pretty clear that he deserves impeachment, but I’ll also leave it to the House and Senate to figure that out.” Buttigieg said his role is relegating Trump to the “dust bin of history” in the 2020 election.
On the verge of change: Addressing why he compared Sanders and Trump earlier this month, Buttigieg said both candidates tapped into a desire to “blow up the system” among voters.
“We need to make sure we don’t come to be viewed as the defenders of the system that is letting people down. We wouldn’t be here if the economic and political system hadn’t failed people,” Buttigieg said. “Once in an every half century or so, there is a moment that is a hinge point between eras in American history. We’re at the dawn of something new and it could be really enlightened and really fantastic, and it could also be really ugly. And a lot of that is gonna depend on what happens now.”