The fight for the Democratic Party’s soul played out Monday as some of the leading presidential contenders clashed in a series of prime-time town halls over free college, free health care and whether President Donald Trump should be impeached.
Five 2020 hopefuls representing different wings of the party were set to address young voters in first-in-the-nation primary state New Hampshire by night’s end. While they took turns on stage, the forum marked the first time this young presidential primary season in which multiple candidates appeared on national television for the same prime-time event.
The first three, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, offered sharply different approaches to some of the policy challenges expected to define their party’s push to defeat Trump next year.
Sanders, a front-runner in the crowded Democratic field who has pushed much of his party to the left in recent years, was asked to defend his decision to embrace democratic socialism.
“It’s a radical idea. Maybe not everyone agrees. But I happen to believe we ought to have a government that represents working families and not just the 1 percent,” he said.
With primary voting roughly nine months away, the Democratic Party is just beginning the high-stakes process of deciding what kind of Democrat is best positioned to defeat Trump next year. The first formal debate, however, isn’t for another two months. Republicans, led by Trump, have spent much of the last year warning voters that Democrats would take the country toward socialism should they win in 2020.
Klobuchar, who has cast herself as a Midwestern pragmatist well positioned to appeal to the middle of the country, refused to embrace “Medicare for All,” free college or Trump’s impeachment.
“I wish I could staple a free college diploma to every one of your chairs,” Klobuchar told the audience of college students. “I have to be straight with you and tell you the truth.”
Warren, a champion for her party’s more liberal wing, called for an “ultra-millionaires’ tax” on income over $50 million to help pay for free college, free child care for all children 5 and younger, free universal prekindergarten and student-debt forgiveness.
“We say good for you that you have now gotten this great fortune,” she said of the nation’s wealthiest taxpayers. “But you gotta pay something back so everybody else gets a chance.”
There was virtually no discussion of immigration, an issue that has largely defined Trump’s presidency, but Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel attacked Warren on social media for supporting “amnesty.” Most of the Democrats seeking the presidency support a pathway to legal status for immigrants in the country illegally, particularly those brought to the country as children.
Just five of the roughly 20 Democratic presidential candidates participated in Monday’s forum. Former Vice President Joe Biden, expected to announce his candidacy later in the week, was among the missing.
CNN did not explain how it chose the participants. The cable network has held prime-time town halls for many of the candidates, including four of the five who appeared Monday.
On impeachment, an issue that has exposed deep divisions within the Democratic Party in recent days, only Warren openly called for elected officials to begin proceedings to remove the president from office. Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have urged a more cautious approach because impeachment would be nearly impossible politically without significant Republican support.
“There is no political inconvenience exception to the United States Constitution,” Warren said. “If any other human being in this country had done what’s documented in the Mueller report, they would be arrested and put in jail.”
Klobuchar, like Sanders, sidestepped direct questions about impeachment. Sanders warned that pushing too hard to remove the president before the next election might distract from Democrats’ priorities on health care and the economy.
California Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg were also set to face voters Monday night.