Five town hall takeaways: Warren shines, Sanders gives ammo to critics

Five Democratic presidential hopefuls made their cases to an audience of college students during a marathon series of CNN town halls on Monday, an event that offered one of the clearest glimpses to date of the still-emerging primary field.

Those town halls — featuring Sens. Bernie SandersBernie Sanders'Medicare for All': The hype v. Maryland's reality Biden says he supports paying campaign staff minimum wage Biden's lead narrows in early voting states: poll MORE (I-Vt.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisThe Hill's Morning Report — Mueller Time: Dems, GOP ready questions for high-stakes testimony Biden's lead narrows in early voting states: poll New CBS poll shows Biden with 7-point lead in New Hampshire MORE (Calif.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren warns another 'economic crash' is coming The Hill's Morning Report — Mueller Time: Dems, GOP ready questions for high-stakes testimony Biden's lead narrows in early voting states: poll MORE (Mass.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharThe Hill's Morning Report — Mueller Time: Dems, GOP ready questions for high-stakes testimony Democratic strategist predicts most 2020 candidates will drop out in late fall The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump hits media over 'send her back' coverage MORE (Minn.), as well as South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegNashville radio host blocked by employer from airing his interview with Buttigieg Buttigieg says white supremacy could be 'issue that ends this country' Biden's lead narrows in early voting states: poll MORE — touched on everything from felon voting rights to the question of whether President TrumpDonald John TrumpChelsea Clinton announces birth of third child Ukrainian officials and Giuliani are sharing back-channel campaign information: report Trump attacks 'the Squad' as 'racist group of troublemakers' MORE should be impeached for possible obstruction of justice.

ADVERTISEMENT

But the slate of appearances also provided a close look at the state of the 2020 primary, as the contenders raced to stand out in a field that has so far grown to 19 people.

Here are five takeaways from the town halls:

Democrats are split on impeachment

Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerThis week: Mueller dominates chaotic week on Capitol Hill Top Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction MORE’s report may be out, but Democrats are far from unified on just how far they should go in addressing its contents.

Warren, who became the first 2020 hopeful to call for the House to begin impeachment proceedings against Trump last week, doubled down on that stance, arguing that lawmakers have a civic duty to weigh in on whether the president should be removed from office.

And Harris made news on Monday when she said that Congress should take steps toward impeaching Trump, pointing to what she said was evidence in Mueller’s report that the president obstructed justice. 

Mueller's report did not make a determination on whether obstruction had occurred, leaving it to Congress to make its own determination.

But other candidates were more wary about the prospect of impeachment.

Sanders warned that talk of the president’s removal from office could backfire on Democrats in 2020 by distracting from kitchen-table issues.

And Klobuchar was similarly circumspect in addressing impeachment. She didn’t say directly whether lawmakers should move toward such action, but noted that the Senate would ultimately have to weigh in if the House brings impeachment charges.

Buttigieg said that he believed the president “deserves impeachment.” But he kicked the can to Congress to decide whether to take on that process.

“I’m going to leave it to the House and Senate to figure that out,” Buttigieg said.

Warren shines. Will she get a bump?

Since announcing her presidential bid on New Year’s Eve, Warren has been gunning for the moment that catapults her into the spotlight. On Monday, she may have gotten it.

She led the way on the impeachment question, forcing every candidate on Monday night to confront the matter. And her recollection of experiencing sexism in her political career went viral.

“I jumped in the race and sure enough the only coverage is about what I’m wearing, about my hair or my voice or if I smiled enough,” Warren said in response to a question about whether she was worried about being “Hillary’d” — held to a higher standard than her male counterparts — on the campaign trail.

The Massachusetts senator’s performance drew immediate praise from pundits on social media, including David Axelrod, a veteran Democratic consultant and former chief strategist to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump struggles to win over voters reaping economic boom Michelle Obama weighs in on Trump, 'Squad' feud: 'Not my America or your America. It's our America' Media cried wolf: Calling every Republican a racist lost its bite MORE’s presidential campaigns, and Ezra Klein, an editor-at-large at Vox.

“Been on a plane and in cars watching the fascinating candidate Town Halls on @CNN,” Axelrod tweeted. “One thing I’d note right off the top: Passionate @ewarren oration on the anti-consumer aspects of ‘05 bankruptcy bill was a not-very-subtle shot across the bow to @JoeBiden, who fought for it.” 

And liberals praised Warren for distilling difficult policy issues into understandable soundbites that would appeal to working-class voters.

“That monopolies answer by Warren in her CNN townhall was killer. A master class is how to clearly explain a complex policy ... without collapsing into jargon,” Klein wrote. “The idea that Warren isn’t a charismatic speaker is insane. This is the stuff people gushed over Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBiden campaign taps foreign policy vet Nicholas Burns as adviser: report Major health reform requires Democratic congressional dominance No presidential candidate can unite the country MORE for.”

Bernie gives political ammunition to critics

Sanders’s critics are chomping at the bit to cast him as too extreme. The Vermont senator might have given those critics new ammunition on Monday night to argue that he’s outside the mainstream.

Sanders was asked if he supports voting rights for incarcerated individuals, including domestic terrorists such as Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is in prison and has been sentenced to death.

Sanders unapologetically responded that everyone, including violent criminals who are guilty of sexual assault and murder, should be able to vote from prison.

“Yes, even for terrible people, because once you start chipping away … you’re running down a slippery slope,” Sanders said.

CNN host Chris Cuomo told Sanders he may have just cut an attack ad against himself.

“I’ve written many 30-second opposition ads against myself in my life, this will be just another one,” Sanders responded.

A few minutes later, the Republican National Committee sent out an email blast calling Sanders’s remarks “beyond extreme.”

Buttigieg later got a big round of applause for disagreeing with Sanders, saying that incarcerated individuals should not be able to vote but that those released from prison should be re-enfranchised.

“Part of the punishment when you’re convicted of a crime and incarcerated is you lose certain rights,” Buttigieg said.

Candidates try to tune out Trump

The Democratic candidates are vying to be the one to take on Trump in the general election, but there’s a clear effort underway to prevent Trump from saturating the entire debate.

Democrats are trying to cut through the noise around the president with policy ideas they believe will appeal to the working-class voters that propelled Trump’s surprise 2016 victory.

Time after time, the Democrats on stage refused to take the bait on questions about Trump, instead steering the conversation back to their policies.

Warren was asked directly how she’d handle Trump’s insults if she becomes the nominee. She responded by launching into an extended riff about how she had to work her way up through the world after going to community college.

“We’re not going to win by just saying not Donald Trump,” Warren said. “We’re not going to win by doing better name-calling than he does. The way we’re going to do this is get out and talk about our vision and how it affects families and touches people personally.”

And in warning Democrats that their impeachment efforts might backfire, Sanders said the party risks becoming consumed by the president and taking their eye off the issues that matter to ordinary Americans.

“I worry that works to Trump’s advantage," Sanders said.

Candidates forced to reckon with their past records

Whether it was Klobuchar’s onetime reputation as a tough-on-crime county attorney or Sanders’s lack of foreign policy expertise, every candidate that took the stage on Monday night was forced to grapple with their pasts.

Warren, for instance, was asked about the fact that she was registered to vote as a Republican until 1995. She said that it was only when she became politically involved in the mid-1990s that she made the decision to switch parties.

“That's when I jumped in politically,” Warren recalled. “I got in that fight, and I fought it for 10 years, and by the end of that fight, I fully understood that every single Republican stood there for the banks and half of the Democrats did.”

And Sanders acknowledged that he was “rightfully” criticized in 2016 for his lack of foreign policy expertise, assuring town hall attendees that he has since learned to “think a little bit more about foreign policy issues than I previously did.”

Buttigieg spent a good chunk of the night on the defensive over polices that critics have said negatively impacted communities of color in South Bend.

Buttigieg defended his demotion of the city’s first-ever African-American police chief, but acknowledged that he underestimated the ripple effect it would have.

“I was a little bit slow to understand just how much anguish underlaid the community’s response to this,” Buttigieg said. “It was about whether communities of color could trust that their police department has their best interests at heart.”

And while he defended a program to demolish abandoned or vacant houses, Buttigieg nodded at criticism that it led to poor minority families being priced out of their neighborhoods.

“No policy is perfect and we learned some things the hard way on this one,” Buttigieg said.