01:18 - Source: CNN
Buttigieg was asked if Pence would be better than Trump

Editor’s Note: Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

On the same day a new CNN poll showed Iowa Democratic voters interested in older, well-established politicians with familiar names, a trio of young, lesser-known candidates made their case at a televised town hall at the SXSW festival in Austin.

Longshots John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard and Pete Buttigieg each tried to display allegiance to some of the most unorthodox positions floating around the Democratic campaign – but all three took pains to avoid going too far off the deep end.

Errol Louis

Like all Democratic candidates, the SXSW town hall participants faced the challenge of presenting themselves as stable and experienced – while also seeming prepared to fight for the sweeping changes in economic, social and foreign policy that the party’s liberal base is demanding. The town halls showed the kind of tightrope Democrats must walk on the road to 2020.

Of the three town hall participants, Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, seemed to connect best with the crowd. No less an authority than David Axelrod, the manager of President Obama’s historic 2008 campaign, said on Twitter that “I have rarely seen a candidate make better use of televised Town Hall than @PeteButtigieg…. Crisp, thoughtful and relatable. He’ll be a little less of a long shot tomorrow.”

While Buttigieg did connect with the crowd, he, too, turns out to be carrying some radical baggage. The mayor has called for possibly expanding the size of the Supreme Court from 9 members to 15 – a reworking of the judicial branch last attempted seriously by President Franklin Roosevelt (who dropped the idea amid a general political uproar caused by his so-called court-packing scheme).

“What we need to do is stop every [Supreme Court] vacancy from being this apocalyptic ideological battle,” Buttigieg said, calling the court expansion idea no less radical than the “shattering of norms” by Republicans who refused even to consider Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland.

Buttigieg champions another unorthodox idea – a guaranteed income for all Americans – that is sure to draw accusations of government interference in the free market. The mayor didn’t give a lot of specifics about how a guaranteed income would work, other than to point out that certain kinds of labor, like caring for an elderly relative, need to be compensated.

And interestingly, Buttigieg doesn’t favor trying to impeach President Donald Trump. “The best way to defeat and end this is through an election,” he said, unless Congress discovers wrongdoing so terrible that impeachment is required.

Turning to the other candidates, John Delaney, former corporate CEO and ex-congressman from Maryland, who declared his candidacy back in 2017, has racked up more than 20 visits to Iowa, apparently following the formula that worked for longshot Jimmy Carter back in 1976. Along the way, he apparently has heard the core demand of Democratic voters for reform of America’s overpriced, underperforming health care system.

So Delaney has signed on to a version of Medicare for All, under which every American would have a guaranteed right to quality medical care. Some would call the concept socialist, but Delaney (who shuns the term) told the town hall that “having a government-only solution to health care is not the right answer.”

Delaney’s alternative? Expand Medicare and Medicaid into a single, cradle-to-grave entitlement. He told the town hall: “You get it as a right of citizenship but if you don’t want it, you can opt out. Get a small tax credit. Or you can buy a supplemental system. And it’s fully paid for by eliminating the corporate deductibility of health care.”

Delaney is attempting a neat trick: creating an all-but-universal, government-run health care system that retains enough opt-outs and market mechanisms that he can sell to the public as something other than socialism.

The town hall audience seemed to accept Delaney’s promise. We’ll see if Democratic voters do the same.

Tulsi Gabbard, on the other hand, dealt with the socialism question by ducking it altogether. When moderator Dana Bash asked the congresswoman from Hawaii, point-blank, if she identifies as capitalist or socialist, the response was a meandering non-answer.

“So many of these labels are misused, misunderstood,” she said. “I’m an independent-minded person, I’m a Democrat and my sole focus and purpose is to figure out how we can best serve the people of this country.”

That won’t cut it on the campaign trail. Not with Republicans itching to turn the 2020 election into a referendum on socialism.

Gabbard, a war veteran, used much of the town hall to explain her controversial call to withdraw American troops from several thorny overseas entanglements. She specifically condemned the idea of using American power to corral or remove dictatorships in Syria, Venezuela and Iran.

“I will end these regime-change wars,” she said at the town hall. “I will work to end this new Cold War and this nuclear arms race that is costing us trillions, and again take those resources … and use them to serve the needs of people here.”

That position, which sounds reasonable at first blush, represents a break from decades of American policy. It’s unclear, for instance, how Gabbard would simply end the new cold war against Russia, given its efforts to undermine US elections. Would a President Gabbard talk Vladimir Putin out of trying to destabilize our democracy?

It also seems unlikely that Gabbard, if elected, could ignore or downplay the Iranian regime’s exporting of terrorism and its threats to displace or attack Saudi Arabia and Israel, two key American allies.

Her curiously soft-on-dictators position extended to Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian strongman who Gabbard once met with – and, who, according to the UN and international inspectors, has used poison gas on his own people.

Asked at the town hall if she considers Assad a war criminal, Gabbard said: “I think that the evidence needs to be gathered and, as I have said before, if there is evidence that he has committed war crimes, he shall be prosecuted as such.”

Get our free weekly newsletter

  • Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.
  • Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    It’s understood, and understandable, that many Democratic activists want to see candidates walk back from endless wars and the reckless commitment of troops overseas. But Gabbard’s refusal to call out Putin and Assad was a costly mistake.

    It seems unlikely that Democrats will select any of these three town hall candidates as the champion best suited to take on Trump. But they offer a glimpse of the problematic policies that the party’s base want candidates to take on – and a foreshadowing of the ferocious battles we’re likely to see in the coming months.