6:42 p.m.: Look, I already know this is a bad idea, and I already know I’m going to run out of steam at the 20-minute mark and just sort of limp along stupidly for the next four hours and change. I’ve already started my first sentence with the word “Look,” which has become the favored vocal tic of American politicians across the spectrum and which proves my brain is jello right from the outset. This is a fruitless, hopeless endeavor, bound to swiftly extinguish the last dying embers of the once-proud fire that was my political optimism. Not because all the candidates will be bad, mind you, although leading off with Amy “terrorizing my staffers by throwing hair brushes at them means I’ll be tough on Putin” Klobuchar is a pretty ugly punishment from my good friends at CNN.
No, I’m on the verge of soul destruction because, for God’s sake, it is April 22 and the primary is in full swing, and on some level—God forgive me for saying it out loud—it’s fascinating. It’s reality television for people who believe they’re too good for reality television, and it never, ever ends. But if you ask to be dropped in the middle of a horse race, as I am tonight, then you better be ready to die by stampede. Let’s do this.
7:00: We are live from Manchester, NH! Welcome to, as CNN calls it, THE FIRST MAJOR CANDIDATE EVENT OF THE 2020 CAMPAIGN. I won’t try to hide my bias here—if the intro paragraph didn’t give it away, I am not psyched for Amy Klobuchar. First off, I have no idea why she’s here. In the last major poll, she secured one percent of the likely vote, trailing such figures as Andrew Yang, Eric Swalwell, and “Somebody Else.” Why she gets the first slot instead of Cory Booker or Kirsten Gillibrand or especially Beto O’Rourke is a mystery to me. Along with having captured exactly no popular momentum so far, she’s as tepid and centrist as they come on policy and she’s a serial staff abuser. Really, her only claim to fame is that Brett Kavanaugh was weird to her during his confirmation hearing, and some people felt bad for her. On such things winning presidential campaigns are not made. She should drop out.
7:03: First question: Should the House judiciary committee move ahead with impeachment charges against Trump? Simple answer: Yes. Trump clearly obstructed justice, at the very least. Klobuchar’s answer: “That’s up to the House.” Chris Cuomo has a good follow-up, asking her if anything in the Mueller report said impeachment on it. Her response: “I think I’m the jury, so I don’t want to predispose myself.” She gave some lip service to the obstruction idea, but how is this supposed to inspire anyone?
7:07: Klobuchar was a D.A. from 1999 to 2007, and she just gave a decent and clearly rehearsed answer, but her solution to racism in the American justice system lacks any broad vision, and is also about small-scale tweaks, which is insulting in and of itself because it treats the problem not as systemic but as something that can be nickel-and-dimed to death. I bet we’ll see that philosophy over and over again tonight.
7:09: First big LOL of the night as a college student asks her why he should support her even though she doesn’t support free college or debt forgiveness. “Because I want to actually get something done,” she says, which is a terrific reason to write her off immediately, since it’s the code word of the pragmatic do-nothing center. You won’t be surprised to know that her solutions are all incremental and piecemeal, and involve adjustments to Pell Grants. At one point, she mentions that her husband had five figures in student debt. “Good news for you guys,” she said, “I married him anyway.” Why is that good news for us? Are they going to have a child who doesn’t suck?
7:13: She just tried to appeal to the youths, and forgave them for killing the paper napkin industry. Wish I was kidding.
7:15 Q: “What country’s healthcare system would you most like to see America resemble?” A: “I’m not going to pick a country.” Klobuchar’s whole act seems to be refusing to answer questions and then scrambling to get into things she’s memorized about lowering deductibles or whatever. And her rambling answer includes words like “competition” and “cost-sharing.” Cuomo asks her why she’s not co-sponsoring Medicare for All even though everyone (but especially young people) love it, and she responded that she wants to “do no harm” by promoting a public option. This is so deeply bland. I’m going to eat dinner.
7:22: “That’s when you guys are supposed to cheer,” she says, after telling a dead silent crowd that she won Michelle Bachmann’s district in her Senate election. With her razor-sharp instincts, Klobuchar knew she could only gain that sweet, sweet momentum by reprising Jeb Bush’s “please clap” moment.
7:24: Klobuchar just reminds the crowd of the time Trump dissed her for referencing climate change, and she responded by saying “I’d like to see how your hair would fare in a blizzard.” Folks, don’t even know why anyone else is coming on stage tonight—she just won the primary.
7:29: Wow, a Harvard kid absolutely nailed Klobuchar on allowing frozen pizza to stay in school cafeterias so the tomatoes could count as a vegetable, all in service to some food company. And all she can do is admit her mistakes, which, good for her I guess, but come on! “I do not believe that frozen pizza with tomato sauce should count as a vegetable, I want to be clear on that.” When you utter that sentence, your night is not going great. And now Cuomo is, kinda hilariously, pressing her on whether frozen pizza should be there at all.
7:33: Some decent applause for saying Betsy DeVos is bad!
7:37: Klobuchar gives her best answer of the night on the Green New Deal, stating simply that even though the pressing issues they confront won’t be solved overnight, “we need these goals.” When asked how to convince rural voters, she simply pointed out wildfires and floods and other natural disasters that are actively hurting those people. It’s amazing how when you back progressive policy, the message is clear and understandable. Meanwhile, she’s getting applause on every line.
7:40: Klobuchar said she feels Chris Cuomo looming over her shoulder, “but not in a Trumpian way.”
7:41 She gets asked what part of her political career she wishes people understood better, giving her a golden opportunity to talk about allegations of staff abuse. Instead, she gives an interesting answer about her father’s drinking struggles, but the elephant in the room is still standing there, unacknowledged. She very briefly mentions “setting high standards for yourself and the ones around you,” but that’s not going to do it.
7:49: Back from commercial, Klobuchar gives yet another solid answer on treating mental health issues in veterans, and references a Paul Wellstone piece of legislation mandating that health insurance companies treat mental illness the same as physical illness. She throws in some good stuff on VA reform, and her second half is clearly going much better than the first half.
7:52: Yet again, Klobuchar is asked to defend a popular policy that will benefit many people—a $1 trillion infrastructure investment, a proposal she shares with a few other candidates—and gives a terrific answer about how to make the issue more appealing to young people (“it’s about more than roads and bridges, it’s about transit and crumbling schools…”), and also how to pay for it by making wealthy people actually pay taxes.
7:55: The lesson of this first Town Hall is pretty basic—if you support progressive policies, and not just watered down versions, you’ll be able to communicate them effectively in a Democratic primary (and also, for what it’s worth, in a general election). And you’ll even look, suddenly, like you have a bit of charisma. But if you’re not willing to go all the way, you’ll be reduced to defensive rambling and apologizing. This was the tale of two Klobuchars, and while her campaign still has no prayer in hell, the difference between the two halves of her town hall are totally instructive.
8:00: Warren is straight up running the best policy-oriented campaign in the primary, and that continued Monday with the introduction of a student debt reduction plan that would be quite welcome in this household, but went further and tackled racial disparities in education. I thought she was d-o-n-e done after the terrible DNA test self-own that played directly into Trump’s hands, and it’s true that she’s not catching on in polls yet, but I am once again hopeful that her version of progressivism—which is based on working within capitalism instead of uprooting it Bernie-style—will generate some fire before long.
8:05: “Now that you have that great fortune, spend a minute remembering how you got it,” she says, in the middle of a monologue about raising taxes on the wealthy and large corporations, which I love—it’s critical to frame higher taxes on the wealthy as a social responsibility, rather than some kind of punishment based on envy, or whatever they’d like you to believe.
8:10: Warren fields a question about Amazon and cleverly illustrates how they knock out the competition by stealing product ideas and using their largesse to shoulder out smaller companies, and she does it by using “pet pillows.” “You don’t get to be the umpire and get to have a team in the game,” she adds, and though I’m not sure that reducing Amazon to a mere platform will magically restore competitive balance without greater federal action, she’s effectively pitching her “reformed capitalism” vision. And compared to Klobuchar, she’s got about twenty times more charisma.
8:14: An aspiring police officer asks her how she’s going to keep cops safe despite criticizing law enforcement in the past, which puts her in a tricky position, and she quickly retreats into her talking points on racial differences in the criminal justice system. Which is all true, but doesn’t answer his question, and I find myself wishing we lived in a world where she could point out the bad faith of the question itself when the safety of police officers, while important, isn’t as pressing as the greater crime of systemic racism in America. Instead, she neatly answers his question by bring up gun safety, which is probably way smarter than my approach.
8:20: It’s hard to describe how effective Warren’s response was to a question about facing sexism—a hugely fraught question that’s easy to bungle—so I’m just going to tweet it here:
It’s easy to forget because of her earlier unforced errors, but Elizabeth Warren is extremely good at this—unlike Klobuchar, she’s not a stiff, unlike Sanders she actually shows her personality and a little bit of warmth. She carries herself like the rockstar professor she has clearly been for years and years. She’s a very good politician, and I think it was the mistake of her life not to run in 2016. If she had, she’d be Bernie Sanders now. Instead, she’s a little stuck, but performances like these can only help.
8:29: She’s faltering a little on the Mueller Report by getting a little too deep into the weeds, when I really think it can be as simple as A, it really seems like he colluded, B, he absolutely obstructed, regardless of what Mueller’s absurdly high standards kept him from definitively concluding, and because of that, he needs to be impeached. But she finishes with a flourish by taking Mueller to task for washing his hands of any responsibility and kicking it down the road to Congress, while also making the point that if there is to be any accountability, it has to come from Congress. Anderson Cooper, relief pitcher for Cuomo, asks a fair question—is it worth Democrats’ time? And Warren answers well, that if they don’t do it, who will? And if nobody will, what does that say about checks and balances, or the efficacy of the legislative branch in general?
8:35: Great question: “You were a Republican first, now you’re very progressive. Did you change, or did the parties change around you?” Warren takes us through her transformation involving credit card companies boxing people out of bankruptcy, implicitly answering the question (“it was me”), and drops a great sound bite: “All the money was on one side, and all the hurt was on the other.” I really do think this stuff is over-blown. We live in a country where more than half of all Republicans now support universal healthcare—people are only placed into stark partisan camps by culture, not policy. Progressive policy is going to appeal across the aisle, every time.
8:42: And here’s the money question, at least as far as the horse race goes: Are you worried Trump will make you a caricature? Warren talks about her past, but she doesn’t really have an answer, because he’s already kind of done it with his “Pocahontas” bit, which she played into with the DNA test in a really self-sabotaging way. Her answer boils down to appealing to the better angels of our nature, and that might even work, but it’s not an answer to how you fight Trump’s bullying. Because, you know what? Maybe you don’t! Maybe she’s right that you have to broadcast your own vision and hope it works. It certainly beats throwing lame insults at him, Klobuchar style. I just wish she had realized this before trying to fight on his level with the Native American ancestry gambit.
8:52: Warren gets the climate change question, and says the only words that matter: “I support the Green New Deal.” If only she was this vocal about Medicare for All, which is the one place where she’s tepid on a major progressive policy platform.
8:55: The final question is about what philosophical differences she’d have with President Obama. And she dodges it totally, referencing her work with establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, because nobody wants to say a bad word about Obama. Still and all, a strong performance, and one she sorely needed if her great policy-oriented campaign is ever going to get the recognition it deserves.
9:00: Thank God it’s the Bernie hour, because the Bernie hour is easy—he just repeats his talking points we’ve been hearing for five years now, makes a few gruff quarter-jokes, and rails against billionaires. You know what you’re getting here. The only thing that’s at all interesting to me is how he’ll answer the inevitable “you’re a millionaire now, doesn’t this make you a phony?” question. And I hope he does better than the vaguely conservative-sounding “I earned my money!” that he trotted out in the Fox News town hall.
9:04: And what talking points they are! As he gets rolling on healthcare, and how to phase out private insurance, it’s striking me yet again just how pure and basic his worldview is, and how it can only come from believing this stuff for an entire lifetime, even when it gained absolutely no political traction. It’s no surprise that he’s leading in the most recent polls, and it’s why I think he’s going to win easily. Agree with him or not, there’s just no artifice, and it’s very weird and refreshing to see that in politics.
9:08: And the proof is in the pudding, because the only way they can get him is with bad faith, tricky questions, such as this one: “You support the right for felons to vote, does that include terrorists and those guilty of sexual assault.” As Chris Cuomo notes, it’s practically writing the opposition ad, but he doesn’t care—he believes felons should have the right to vote, period, and he doesn’t back down because of perceived optics or anything else.
9:13: Here it is! “Your tax returns revealed you are a millionaire…does that undermine your authority?” He brings up his book, but lays off the “I deserve it!” approach, and focuses instead on how he’s still the same ol’ Bern. I think I’m with Nathan Robinson in that Bernie would have been wiser, if only from a PR perspective, to give some of that money away. Cuomo asks if being rich gives him any new perspective on the people he harangues: The answer is, it’s a relief not being poor, like he was as a kid, but it hasn’t changed his core values. He got out of that one with very little damage, and his answer has definitely improved.
9:18: “What’s one thing you’ve changed your mind on recently?” It’s a semi-gotcha question, but kind of a good one, and Bernie thinks on his feet well by talking about the Yemen war powers resolution that was just vetoed by Trump, but that passed Congress with bipartisan support.
9:23: Bernie gets the Mueller question, and you can tell he really is not crazy about pursuing impeachment, even though he supports a congressional investigation. But there’s no hiding when he doesn’t get fired up about an issue like this, and he clearly doesn’t believe that hyper-focus on Mueller and impeachment will do the Democrats any good. Don’t expect Bernie to make a martyr of Trump, or to lead the impeachment charge.
9:27: What’s amazing about every Bernie town hall is that at least 75% of the questions are insanely hostile, like the one we just got: “How can you be socialist when the Soviet Union failed?” How are there this many just blatantly bad-faith ambush-type questions when everyone else gets “what will you do about climate change?” Worth noting that Warren got zero questions about her DNA fiasco, and nobody asked Klobuchar about the staff abuse allegations. It does not pay to be a real leftist in mainstream American media.
9:34: “I believe Benjamin Netanyahu is a right-wing politician who is treating the Palestinian people very badly.” It must drive the AIPAC crowd nuts that Sanders is Jewish, making it harder (but not impossible) to call him anti-Semitic.
9:38: Someone just asked Bernie what he would do to reach across the aisle, which is kind of funny because on some level, he represents the nightmare of every elected Republican in America. There are just a ton of issues on which he can never reach across the aisle, but at the same time, he did just work with a Republican senator to pass the Yemen resolution, and as he points out, he did pass amendments with Republicans in his House days. And let’s be real—no matter who the Democrat is, the GOP will throw out the word “socialist!” and obstruct whenever possible, so Bernie has as good a shot as any.
9:48: This question was an absolute classic. I paraphrase: “You want to give free college by taxing the wealthy. But sometimes people get wealthy because they went to college. So won’t that hurt us eventually?” I’m not even listening to the answer—I just have to sit here and appreciate that truly bonkers logic.
9:49: Bernie’s the only candidate who can say “ain’t” and get away with it.
9:50: Pleased to notice that after the Fox News town hall, he’s stopped cupping his ear when he can’t hear something. (And yes, I’ve noticed that this diary is getting very superficial. Bernie wants to fight climate change…is that what you wanted, you bloodsuckers?)
9:54: Bernie gets the “you’re old” question, but it has a kinder slant, phrasing it as “why do young people like you so much?” Bernie chalks it up to young people being both woke and idealistic, but more specifically the fact that things are simply getting worse, and nobody buys into the American dream anymore…and fewer than ever are Republicans. That’s all she wrote for Bernie, and it was a consummate Bernie performance in the way that they’re all consummate Bernie performances—just the break I needed in the midst of this increasingly unappetizing five-hour chore I’ve assigned myself.
10:00 We’ve reached the end of the progressive portion of the evening, and are now on to the “contenders fighting for any precious piece of oxygen before Joe Biden gets in the race on Wednesday and screws them” portion of the night. Up next: Kamala Harris. “Is she a cop? Is she, as Paste’s Roger Sollenberger insists, a progressive Let’s find out!
10:01: Don Lemon has been called in from the bullpen. He looks fresh and ready.
10:02: What I like about Harris, from a purely superficial standpoint, is that she broadcasts strength and confidence. There’s no painting her as weak, and the way she speaks echoes that no-nonsense demeanor. Her Mueller answer was good—the process of impeachment needs to go through, but the reality is that the Senate will never follow through.
10:05: On guns: Universal background checks, assault weapons ban, license removal for anyone who violates the rules, fugitives back on the no-buy list. Kinda wish there was a broader answer about why this is happening, and not the unspoken belief that guns and guns alone are to blame, but at least she’s on it.
10:09: And here’s the problem with Harris and her ilk: She gets the student debt question, and filibusters for a minute about how bad it is that debt handicaps so many young Americans, but her solution stops short of actual debt forgiveness—she wants to refinance, lower interest rates to 3.5%, and make repayment income-based. Which is all okay, but it’s another piecemeal approach to a problem that has ballooned beyond a piecemeal solution. Even when she says she “supports” free college, she says it quickly and without her usual conviction. Lemon puts her on the spot—do you support Warren’s (far more comprehensive plan), and she says “that’s an important conversation to have.” From someone who would benefit greatly from the erasure of punishing student loans: Hard pass.
10:15: Some very young person just asked “what do you say to people who want to keep their private insurance?” WHY ARE YOU ASKING THAT, YOUNG PERSON? FIGHT FOR MEDICARE FOR ALL, YOU SNITCH! “You don’t need to defend them,” Harris says, which is a terrific response. “You will be able to have your doctor,” she says of Medicare for All. She tells a moving story of her mother, who died from cancer, and when Lemon pushes her on whether there’s any place for private insurance, she re-emphasizes the need to focus on the ultimate goal, which is coverage for everyone, plus expanding the current definition of Medicare for All.
10:17: God, another little college-age snitch trying to undermine progressive policy, this time the Green New Deal. “It has no legislative effect.” Yeah, no shit! There are lots of Republicans fighting against it! That doesn’t mean we just throw our hands up and let world burn, dude! Harris does a good job answering the question without ripping his face off, which is what I would have frankly preferred. Where are they finding all these young Ted Cruz clones?
10:26: Here’s a reparations question, and Harris’ somewhat limp answer is that she’s supporting a House bill that will study the question. She goes into a stemwinder about the traumatic impact of slavery, but when Lemon presses her on whether she supports financial reparations, it’s back to “we should study that.” It’s clear from tonight that every candidate, from Harris to Sanders, dreads the reparations question, and deep down believes that it’s a political loser of an issue. That said, when Lemon asks her about her agenda for black America, she gives a solid answer spanning criminal justice reform, HBCUs, and childbirth mortality rates for black women.
10:30: I can already tell that Harris is the candidate that, at least for me, will swing opinion the most. I have questions about her sincerity, but she’s quite good at this, and at least in the moment—maybe I’m gullible—she seems sincere even in her more progressive beliefs. How much of that is just being a good actor compared to someone like Klobuchar? Probably a lot. But if you’re not in the Warren/Sanders wing (I am), and you’re looking for a candidate who will push the country left but broadcast toughness and not wilt in the face of Trump, she’s a good choice. It’s less surprising to me now that she boxed out the likes of Booker and Gillibrand to steal the early left-center momentum. Biden’s entry is reallllly going to hurt her, though, in a lot of different ways.
10:34: Here we go! It’s the truancy question—do you regret threatening to lock up mothers as DA? Her answer is pretty solid: 94% of people under 25 being killed were high school dropouts, and many had been chronically truant. The broader statistics support her claim, and it’s believable that she saw curbing truancy as a way to start solving a lot of much bigger problems. And then there’s the fact that no mothers actually went to jail—for many progressives, that won’t matter, because the stench of victim-blaming, not to mention the threat, will overshadow the ends. But she handled it well, and I truly can’t see the majority of Americans thinking she should be crucified over that part of her past.
10:38: Harris really doesn’t want to answer the “should felons in jail be allowed to vote?” question, and resorts to “I think we should have that conversation.” Lemon gives her a smirk in response, which she probably deserved. Not to keep harping on this, but I think it’s a terrible look for an politician to lack an answer on basically any topic, and it’s another part of what distinguishes Sanders from the rest—he’s not protecting himself for political reasons, fearing that he’ll say something his opponents can use against him. And maybe Harris isn’t either, but it certainly seems like it.
10:44: A question about racial identity gets a kind of vague, platitudinous answer that seems designed to avoid a concrete answer. Harris is either uncomfortable talking about race with any more granularity than the systemic issues, or she’s trying to avoid it because she’s not eager to be pigeonholed as the “black candidate.”
10:48: However! She gives a terrific answer about the fixation on “winning back the Midwest” or any other geographical area, and correctly identifies that as a way to throw up artificial cultural divides and pretend that poor and middle-class people all across the country aren’t dealing with the same exact issues.
10:53: After a couple solid answers on pay equality and LGBTQ rights—on which Harris has a particularly good record, with one interesting exception—we’re at the end of the Harris hour. And it’s been a good one!
10:55: “I’m really interested in having that conversation” is official Kamala-speak for “I don’t want to touch that issue with a ten-foot pole.” It came in response this time to a question about whether 16-year-olds should have the right to vote, and she waltzed away from that one in double time, throwing a lot of “maybes” out there. And now it’s Mayor Pete time!
11:00: I have to admit something to you, my faithful readers who have somehow, against every bit of good sense, made it this far: It is now Tuesday morning, and I am watching this on DVR. I grew quite weary, and I couldn’t face an hour of Mayor Pete on no sleep. Did I fail you? Perhaps.
Full disclosure on Mayor Pete: I’m not fan. I recently wrote a piece about Beto O’Rourke calling him the candidate for “vapid morons,” and while I wouldn’t use that same description to describe Buttigieg partisans—he’s definitely more serious than the guy who can’t stop standing on counters—it’s on the spectrum. Nathan Robinson at Current Affairs wrote what I consider the definitive take on Mayor Pete, and while it’s so incredibly long that I can’t possibly summarize it here, it’s a great read and worth your time, and fundamentally makes the point that Buttigieg is a kind of privileged technocrat who checks a lot of boxes but has not been even remotely progressive in his political career to date. Regarding his surprising appeal thus far, this paragraph resonates:
Pete Buttigieg is trying the same thing. Look at the number of boxes he checks. He’s from the Rust Belt so he’s authentic, but he went to Harvard so he’s not a rube, but he’s from a small city so he’s relatable, but he’s gay so he’s got coastal appeal, but he’s a veteran so his sexuality won’t alienate rural people. This is literally the level of political thinking that is involved in the hype around Buttigieg.
He’s like Beto, but with a more cleverly designed appeal. I hope he gets a few tough questions.
11:00: Anderson Cooper’s back, baby! That makes two for Coop, two for Cuomo, and one for Lemon. Why have they sidelined our precious Jake Tapper??
11:04: Hahahaha Cooper calls Buttigieg out for having “like, nothing” about policy on his website. “At what point do you need to start presenting specific policies?” Touche, Anderson! Buttigieg counters with his dumb idea for Supreme Court reform and then says something that perfectly defines why I already can’t stand the guy, and why nobody should trust him:
“I also think it’s important that we not drown people in minutiae before we’ve vindicated the values that animate our policies.”
He literally goes on to say that a big mistake Democrats make is stating their policies and expecting people to ascertain their values, when what they should be doing is putting their “values” out first, and then people can just sort of trust that their policies are good.
That is a mind-bogglingly bad approach, Pete. It almost doesn’t bear a response, but here: If you support Medicare for All vociferously, to use one prominent example, then I can trust your “values.” If you don’t support it, all I’m left with is your words, which, when they’re as full of obvious BS as that sentence above, give me absolutely no reason to trust anything about you.
Cooper refuses to let him off the hook, somewhat heroically, and you can tell Mayor Pete is getting annoyed. He fires back that it’s just the second week of his campaign, which begs the question: If you haven’t formulated policy positions yet, over a damn lifetime of political service, why are you even running?
God, I really don’t want to watch the rest of this. Excuse me while I Google “how to break my DVR and make it look like an accident.”
11:58: Well, that’s it! The night’s over! We had some good times over the past hour, didn’t we? Mayor Pete was bad, and I wrote a whole bunch of words about why he was so bad, and if those words happened to get deleted by our dang balky content management system, well, that’s life on the Internet in 2019! I definitely wrote them, and I will not be taking questions at this time.
Thank you to the one or two deranged readers who have stuck it out this long. If you’re looking for conclusions, here’s the one line summary for each candidate:
Klobuchar: Decent when she’s supporting progressive policy, awful when she’s not, no chance.
Warren: Impressive as usual, armed to the teeth with good policy, but not catching on.
Harris: Better than expected, probably the biggest “winner” of the night in horse race parlance, and probably someone it wouldn’t be terrible to vote for if you’re a progressive whose candidates don’t win.
Mayor Pete: Vomit.
Enjoy your day! Let’s never do this again!