MANCHESTER, N.H. — Building up to its five-hour, back-to-back installment of presidential town halls on Monday night, CNN promised a new opportunity to compare Democratic primary contenders to one another. Wolf Blitzer deemed it a “major moment” in the evolving 2020 campaign.
And when it was all over, what had the event delivered? A reminder, more than anything, of just how premature the Democratic primary campaign remains.
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Despite their proximity and the promise of cable television’s reach, the five Democrats who filed onto a stage in New Hampshire largely sparred without partners. They disagreed about whether Congress should pursue impeachment of President Donald Trump. But to the extent that there are ideological distinctions between them — on health care, college education and climate change — they presented those differences as mere shades of a similar kind. And when presented with opportunities to criticize one another, they demurred.
“I really haven’t studied it,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said when asked about Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s student loan forgiveness plan. “But I think Elizabeth and I end up agreeing on a whole lot of issues. And what she understands and what I understand is we don’t punish people for the crime of getting a higher education.”
“I don’t think Elizabeth and I have terribly many differences on this,” Sanders said.
Later, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) called Warren’s proposal “an important conversation to have.” She had a similar reaction when asked if felons should be allowed to vote while in prison, as Sanders had proposed.
“I think we should have that conversation,” Harris said.
Just not on Monday.
By the time midnight fell and “Law & Order” reruns were hitting their stride, the most significant moment CNN’s town hall marathon marked was not any culling of the 2020 field, but rather an extended period of non-aggression preceding the first Democratic primary debate in June.
Joe Biden, who is likely to announce his candidacy soon and whose polling numbers cast a shadow on the rest of the Democratic primary field, did not even warrant a mention. And former President Barack Obama drew only praise.
Warren, when asked how she diverges from Obama, instead told a story about how he helped her launch the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
“He was the one who stood there when everyone else said in his administration, ‘Throw that agency under the bus,'” Warren said. “And he said, ‘No, I’m not going to let this crisis pass and not come away with a consumer agency that makes sure that families never get cheated again.’ I will always be grateful to the president for that.”
In part, the lack of early confrontation in the 2020 primary was preordained. Despite town halls’ debate-like staging, candidates are prevented from appearing onstage together — a more contentious setting — before Democratic National Committee debates begin, according to DNC rules.
Instead, candidates seek out town halls for the large audience they offer and for the opportunity to clip memorable segments for use in fundraising appeals or online advertisements. Some use the venues to make news, as Harris did by pledging to take executive action if Congress does not enact major gun legislation within her first 100 days as president.
It is early campaign work — as are the logistics. In a press filing room several yards from the event auditorium, members of the media watched the town halls on an Apple TV that stopped working every hour or two.
For viewers searching for differences between the candidates, Monday’s forums did expose divergent approaches to the aftermath of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia and the 2016 presidential campaign.
Hours after Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rejected calls to launch impeachment proceedings against Trump, Warren broke with Pelosi, calling on members of Congress to vote on impeachment.
“There is no political-inconvenience exception to the United States Constitution,” Warren said. “They should have to take that vote and live with it for the rest of their lives.”
Harris, too, said Congress “should take the steps toward impeachment,” while Sanders and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota stopped short of calling for 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.
But for the most part, the candidates appeared to steer a common vessel. Early in the primary campaign, confrontations between candidates are not often yet direct. And differences between them are of degree, not vastly different ideologies.
Klobuchar, in a brief slight of Warren’s student loan forgiveness plan, said she wished she could “staple a free college diploma under every one of your chairs.” But she focused more on expanding Pell Grants, allowing students to refinance loans and bringing back an Obama-era plan for free two-year community college programs.
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., disagreed with Sanders about felons voting while in prison.
But after explaining the divergence, Buttigieg quickly pivoted back to a goal that Democrats broadly share: restoring felons’ right to vote once their sentences are served.