12 2020 presidential candidates, 11 Democrats along with one Republican, stormed Georgetown’s historic Gaston Hall for an unprecedented two-day climate forum sponsored by MSNBC. Every declared candidate for President was invited, and those that accepted were given one hour to take questions from MSNBC moderators and the student audience in attendance. Check out our winners and losers of the festivities.
Sen. Cory Booker
Cory Booker kicked off day two of the forum, and the New Jersey Senator held the sleepy college crowd in the palm of his hands for the entirety of the hour. Booker has always been a charismatic speaker, and his way of intertwining personal stories, funny quips, and data-backed policies has always stood out to me.
The New Jersey Senator stressed the need of climate policy to be “win-win” for everybody, especially low-income communities like his that often bear the brunt of climate change. Booker talked about so-called “climate justice” in a way that resonated with the young crowd, and was able to do so in a more concise way than other candidates trying to push similar messages like former HUD Secretary Julian Castro.
Booker’s focus of crafting every policy proposal through the lens of climate has earned him an A- from climate advocacy group Greenpeace, tied for second, and behind only Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
Booker preached the need to not only defeat Trump but to deliver a Democratic Senate in 2020, saying “This election is not about one guy in one office.” Booker did not come into the forum with the excitement among college students of candidates like Sanders, Pete Buttigieg or even Andrew Yang, but talking with attendees it appeared he made the most new fans of anyone at the forum, making him the #1 winner.
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang
Andrew Yang has been the only candidate outside of Elizabeth Warren in the 2020 race that has consistently risen over time, and while the current RealClearPolitics average places him in sixth right now, Yang is polling in double digits and third of any candidate among voters ages 18-34 according to a new poll by NBC. The internet sensation was the star of the morning at day one of the forum. Yang received rapacious applause from the crowd in attendance, which was made almost entirely of the student.
Joking throughout with a beaming, young charisma, it’s easy to see why Yang (and his 1,000 dollar a month Freedom Dividend) are popular among young voters. Yang interspersed comedy throughout his in-depth wonky policy, joking around with moderator Ali Velshi, “don’t remind us… it’s so painful” when the MSNBC host commented that the country has a chemical exec as EPA Administrator, but also flexing the knowledge of his statistical driven campaign, blurting out with seemingly no self control “47%” when Velshi struggled to remember the exact percentage of Americans whom could not afford an unexpected $400 bill.
Despite UBI being the flagship issue of his campaign, Yang called Climate Change the “1A” in terms of important issues facing the country, and intertwined the two, stating “You can’t focus on a problem that’s years away if you’re worried about next month’s rent.”
The main purpose of Yang’s time was dedicated to his vision of shifting the economy away from capitalistic, money-driven policies, at one point remarking the absurdity of the fact the hurricanes cause GDP to go up. Yang pushed unique policies like expanding nuclear power, government subsidies for relocation, and new taxes on high emission industries including cattle. Yang celebrated with the crowd after the forum and was a clear winner of the day.
Sen. Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders, the runaway favorite among young voters, packed the hall for his session with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, where Sanders ended up standing for practically the entirety of the forum. Sanders’ reaction from the crowd was nearly universally positive from start to finish, and barring a couple of slip-ups, including one when he briefly forgot congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s last name for a few awkward seconds, it was the usual Sanders firing on all cylinders with his usual energetic self.
Sanders’ stark contrast between pushing bold policies and acknowledging the challenges he will face in enacting them is one of the most interesting contrasts in a candidate in the 2020 race. At one point the Vermont Senator said “This is gonna be tough, I acknowledge that” continuing, “It’s very, very difficult… but you tell me what the alternative is.”
Sanders pushed policies often overlooked like his “just transition” for displaced workers including pay, health care, and retraining over a five year period, while also lodging his usual attacks on fossil fuel companies, pharma execs, and the media, all of which were enormously popular with the crowd. With the biggest crowd reaction of either day, it’s hard to deny Sanders was a winner.
Frm. Gov. Bill Weld
The final candidate of the forum was also the only Republican, former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld. Weld, who ran on the Libertarian ticket in 2016, pushed Libertarian solutions to climate change like a carbon tax and dividend, along with deficit mindfulness in the face of stark challenges. Weld effectively prosecuted the case against incumbent President Donald Trump on climate change, pushing his impotence to do anything on the environment to the forefront and calling for his impeachment on multiple occasions.
Weld endorsed doing “more” than the failed 2009 Waxman-Markey bill that died in the Senate due to a lack of Republican support, and also pushed for expansions of nuclear power, noting to the progressive audience that the original draft of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal included the controversial power source.
It was not all positive for Weld, the 74-year-old did show his age on a few occasions, including a long tangent about why the Green New Deal was bad that devolved into welfare work requirements, but he left better than he came in.
Weld’s best moments were his stark criticisms in the modern Trumpist Republican Party, predicting a split in the party similar to the changes that the Whig party underwent in the mid-1800s, an analogy he noted on multiple occasions, making sure to stress that he was the Abraham Lincoln in the story.
The mostly progressive crowd came away with a relatively favorable view of Weld, and the not-insignificant number of moderates and conservatives in the audience seemed receptive to his unique take on climate after listening to 11 Democrats speak.
Weld received plaudits from moderator Ali Velshi on multiple occasions for being the only Republican to accept an invitation to the forum, and in a situation such as Weld’s where there are no opportunities for debates to get your name out there, every bit helps, and this performance certainly gave him some publicity and probably won him some fans at the margins.
Chris Hayes, Ali Velshi, MSNBC, and Climate Policy
We can’t write an article about this forum without acknowledging the incredible change in the urgency of climate policy over the past decade, and its emergence into the mainstream. You have to give huge props to MSNBC and their contributors Ali Velshi and Chris Hayes, who gave a platform to this event.
In nearly 16 hours over two days, we were invited to witness 12 candidates speak who each looked at the climate crisis through different lenses, from ag policy to racial justice. The biggest winner of the two days was climate policy itself, and it was great to witness in person, so thanks to the Georgetown Institute of Politics for inviting me.
Sen. Michael Bennet
Michael Bennet, the lowest polling US Senator still in the Presidential race (grabbing 0.6% of first-choice support according to Real Clear Politics) kicked off the forum with his Colorado charm, pushing structural reforms and the need of building a broad coalition to gain a climate mandate for his presidency, where he says he will pass broad climate legislation within the first nine months.
Bennet held the crowd’s attention with self-mockery and jokes despite his policy positions being much more centrist than the students in attendance, pushing interesting policies like a “Climate Bank” for clean energy investment, a mandate on electricity providers to provide clean energy options, and federal subsidies to low-income households to retrofit their homes to become more eco-friendly.
Bennet lost the crowd, however, when a questioner asked about his support for the Keystone Access Pipeline, drawing “oohs” from the crowd. Bennet struggled to make a convincing argument for his vote, claiming that he voted for the bill because he “thought that Mitch McConnell was very effectively weaponizing it in th[e] debate,” by painting no voters as anti-job and as “people who wanted to destroy our economy.” When moderator Chris Hayes pushed back on Bennet asking if he was saying he did it for political reasons, Bennet struggled to put together a coherent response, and admitted: “I know I’m on the losing side of this debate.” I wouldn’t say he had a bad day, but on the relative scale of everyone else he certainly struggled.
Rep. Tim Ryan
As the first day wound down, congressman Tim Ryan spoke to a mostly empty audience about the climate plan of his struggling 2020 campaign. Ryan focused his policies on the effects they would have on the agriculture industry and how climate reform can be good for workers, especially manufacturing workers in cities like his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio.
To the behest of the progressive crowd in the audience, Ryan stopped short of endorsing left-wing policies like the Green New Deal, but said he did support “A Green New Deal.” Ryan swore on multiple occasions as he’s been known to do, at one point recalling his realization of climate change’s importance: “Oh shit, I better get busy here.” The mood in the room was very dull, especially compared to the excitement that candidates like Andrew Yang and Bernie Sanders created earlier in the day, and Ryan struggled to go in-depth enough on policy matters to make up for it, making him a loser of the day’s festivities.
Businessman Tom Steyer
Philanthropist Tom Steyer was the final Democratic to take place in the forum, and in what was likely the first chance for many Democrats to get a look at the billionaire, he faltered under pressure.
The optics of around 75% of the hall leaving between Buttigieg’s speech and his certainly put him behind the eight ball, but his performance didn’t do much to quell concerns.
Steyer said all the right things, stating emphatically that climate was his “#1 priority,” and speaking with an activist familiar with Steyer’s thinking, that wasn’t just partisan politicking. Steyer also promised to declare a climate emergency on his first day in office, but he struggled to put the pieces together into a coherent argument at some points, which perhaps could be expected for someone who has never ran for office before but was nonetheless a bad look.
This was a poor performance from Steyer, and he’ll have to have a much better performance in his first debate opportunity October 15th if he wants to hang onto national relevance for long.
Author Marianne Williamson
Spiritual author Marianne Williamson came into the forum tied for the lowest polling average (0.4% of first-choice support) of any candidate attending, but Georgetown students packed Gaston Hall for her hour, although her placement right before enormously popular Senator Bernie Sanders probably did not hurt.
Williamson’s reception from the crowd was give and take, she pivoted from a borderline comedy routine, mimicking a stereotypical capitalist at one point, to solemnly forcing the audience to grapple with the potential results of a nuclear disaster in the US. At some points it felt that the audience was more laughing at her than with her, but Williamson pushed the type of perspectives you’d expect from an outsider candidate, saying “I think we have to recognize that a lot of that money goes to Democrats as well as Republicans,” referring to fossil fuel money, adding “This is why I’m running… the whole thing is dysfunctional.”
Williamson pushed policies like mandatory national service, which was not popular with the audience, but also called for “peaceful non-violent revolution,” echoing Bernie Sanders. Williamson, who is 67, struggled to understand many audience questions and rambled at points, going off into subjects just tangentially related to climate change, which was not unnoticed from the crowd.
Williamson had her moments, but it would be hard to say she had a good day, as the hour ended with her really struggling to pushback on Ali Velshi calling recent tweets of hers “anti-science,” leaving a bad taste in the mouths of many watchers, but she entertained the crowd at least.
Frm. HUD Secretary Julian Castro
Day one of the two-day climate forum capped off with former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, who has recently been in the headlines in a largely negative way after his attacks on Joe Biden during the third Democratic Debate earlier this month.
The hall was still not nearly as full as it was during the morning session, but certainly was the most full it had been since Sanders left. The former secretary effectively prosecuted the key piece of his climate plan: a focus on environmental justice for those communities of color and poorer communities that are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change. Castro also stressed the importance of accepting climate refugees from affected areas throughout the world, calling it a “moral responsibility” to do so.
The former mayor pushed the need to explain plans like the Green New Deal in communities that would not naturally be in favor of it, citing his home state of Texas as an example, an important point to be made from a fairly progressive candidate.
You got a sense that many of the people that had come for the whole forum were tired by this point, but Castro electrified the room to a far greater extent than Delaney or Ryan did, joking around and catering to the students in attendance by pushing a progressive vision for the future of the country. The toned-down energy in the room contrasted with earlier in the day would make it hard to call him a winner, but he made some new fans in the hall and among those watching at home.
Gov. Steve Bullock
Montana Governor Steve Bullock came into the forum with the lowest grade of any 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate (a D) according to climate advocacy group Greenpeace due to his coziness to the fossil fuel industry, but the Governor tried to push back on those claims to a mostly full audience, which was likely just there to see the next speaker, Pete Buttigieg, but Bullock capitalized on the energy all the same.
The Montana governor called for progressive ideas like blowing up the filibuster, and he said that his administration would strive to set targets to get to net-zero emissions by 2040, ten years prior to what the UN projects to be the deadline for the World.
Bullock stressed the need to protect farmers in any climate policy and to engage in structural reforms, specifically campaign finance, to free the US Congress from the grips of dark money in politics, a key issue he has stressed throughout the campaign.
Bullock echoed sentiments raised the day before by Andrew Yang, saying that it’s hard to focus on climate when you can’t pay your bills at the end of the month, a sentiment the audience found compelling.
Perhaps Bullock’s best moment, though, was when he drilled down his electability argument during an answer. The cowboy boot-wearing Governor said that the #1 thing the country could do to reverse climate change would be to beat President Trump in 2020, and stressed that he was the man for the job. From a pure electability argument, Bullock is the best in the field on the numbers, he overperformed Hillary Clinton by 25 points in 2016. The moderate wooed the young, progressive crowd with his Western charm, making him a clear thumbs-up, and just missing out on the winners’ category.
Frm. Rep. John Delaney
The room emptied between the speeches of Sanders and Delaney, putting the former Maryland rep in tough spot with a mostly empty audience to speak to. Those that did stay were treated to a fairly dull session from the former Georgetown grad, however, while maybe not the most entertaining to listen to, Delaney did a good job at explaining his policies in an easy to understand way, the most important being his “Paris 2.0” proposal and his Carbon fee and dividend idea, which he unsuccessfully pushed as a member of the House of Representatives despite some Republican support.
Delaney also attacked many of his more populist or nationalist opponents in the Democratic Primary who support protectionist trade policies through the lens of climate, saying: “you can’t tariff your way to fighting climate change.”
Delaney’s frankly boring to listen to proposals like changing the ratio of trees to farmland aren’t really all that inspiring, but I would argue that at a highly educated school like Georgetown, this in-depth policy discussion was exactly what this forum was made for, and I’d bet the majority of students left the event with a more favorable view of Delaney than they came in with even if the median attendee is far to the left of him.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg
This may be the most controversial non-winner of the article, as Pete Buttigieg was the clear draw of the second day, and at worst the third most popular candidate among attendees, probably ahead of Andrew Yang for second if I had to wager.
Buttigieg supports left-wing policies like the Green New Deal and a Carbon Tax and Dividend (which he say will be progressively distributed), but had to deal with pushback on his plan, one of the smallest in terms of public investment in the Democratic field, saying “I don’t measure out ambition by how many federal dollars we pump into the Treasury,” and also “We gotta focus on outcomes rather than inputs,” answers which didn’t seem to go over well with the crowd, which was certainly inclined to like him.
Buttigieg was incredibly over with the audience at the start, and while he still received great applause at the end of the event, it felt as if he lost the crowd in the middle on multiple occasions, although I’m not sure if that was because of his recent pivot to the center despite younger voters grow more liberal, or his often wonky answers. That’s not to say Buttigieg’s performance was weak, but relative to expectations of students coming in, it was certainly subpar.