Over the course of nearly seven hours in downtown Washington, eight candidates were given about 35 minutes each to address a crowd of activists. The closest any candidate got to challenging the liberal energy in the room was when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he didn’t wholly support expanding the Supreme Court — and instead wants to consider term limits for the justices.
“Here is my concern about expanding the numbers,” Sanders said, in his first comments on a topic that has become one of many litmus tests among Democratic activists. “My worry is the next time Republicans are in power, they will do the same thing. That is not the ultimate solution. What I do think may make sense is if not term limits, rotating judges to the appeals court.”
Beto O’Rourke joined with other candidates in saying definitively that he would support abolishing the electoral college.
“Yes, let’s abolish the electoral college,” the former Texas congressman said. “This is one of those bad compromises we made at Day One in this country. . . . If we got rid of the electoral college, we get a little bit closer to one person, one vote in the United States of America.”
“It is warped,” he said of the state of American democracy. “It is corrupted right now. If we cannot fix it, if we cannot get it right . . . we’re going to lose this very democracy itself.”
O’Rourke also said one of his first actions would be to sign an executive order calling on every Cabinet official to hold a town hall meeting every month.
“Not a handpicked audience. Not a theatrical production. But a real, live town hall meeting — not just to answer questions, but to be held accountable,” O’Rourke said.
The “We the People” forum, at the Warner Theatre, was part of several gatherings that will take place before candidates meet in Miami in June for the first televised debate. To comply with Democratic National Committee rules, the candidates did not engage with one another but took the stage one after another, allowing for comparisons.
Many on Monday talked in dour terms about the state of democracy, saying the future of the country’s democratic ideals are at risk. They railed against corporate monopolies.
“This is a perilous time for our country,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said. “You know. . . . The Trump administration is a walking, talking, living, breathing threat to national security.”
Most of the forum ignored the topics that are the most popular among voters. Candidates often spoke only in passing of health care or immigration: “I support Medicare-for-all. I support the Green New Deal,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said. “These are issues that are core to who I am.”
Most questions focused on more arcane topics such as filibuster restructuring or expanding the Supreme Court. Julián Castro proposed making Congress subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
“I am proud to support statehood for Washington, D.C.,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said, calling it a “major priority” that she would address in her first 100 days.
They railed against the state of campaign finance, agreeing to various pledges. Booker said he won’t take money from pharmaceutical executives.
“If we need a constitutional amendment to show that corporations are not people . . . so be it,” O’Rourke said.
Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) called for abolishing the electoral college, as well as the filibuster, and turned almost every question into an answer about climate change.
“We cannot put the climate change just kind of on a checklist,” Inslee said. “We cannot put it on a ‘Things To Do’ list. Right now, I’m the only candidate who’s saying this, that this has to be priority Number One.”
President Trump was a frequent subject of derision.
Klobuchar made fun of his hair, ridiculed his Twitter habit and poked at his philosophy. “He somehow thinks organized hate is somehow more important than unorganized love,” she said.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), the final speaker of the day, tried to set herself apart as the most anti-Trump of the bunch.
“I am the senator who voted the most against President Trump for his Cabinet nominees. I am going to stand up to him every chance I get because that is who I am,” Gillibrand said. “Will you fight with everything you have? Will you never give up? Will you never give in? Will you fight like your life depends upon it? Because the truth is, it does.”
She also floated a proposal that would provide free college tuition.
“How about one big idea,” she said. “How about telling any young person in America today: If you are willing to do a year of public service, you get two years of community college or state school free. If you are willing to do two years of public service, you get four years free.”
The back-to-back appearances underscored the difficulty facing many of the candidates: how to break out of a crowded field.
They tried charm.
“I have a twin brother; he tells people I’m a minute uglier than he is. But I’m actually a minute older,” said Castro, the former housing secretary and San Antonio mayor.
“I wore my Planned Parenthood pink!” Klobuchar exclaimed. Booker answered a question in English and then spoke a paragraph in Spanish — “Rapido en Espanol,” he said — which earned surprise and applause.
Warren was among the most well received, feeding off the crowd and going so long at times that organizers started playing “Respect” by Aretha Franklin to get her to wrap up.
“They’re going to play me off here, but I’m going to say two more things,” Warren said, eventually earning a standing ovation.