Businessman Andrew Yang and author Marianne Williamson came into their respective town halls on Sunday needing to prove to Americans that their longshot presidential bids are more than novel campaigns with little chance to succeed.
What each did, however, is show that it is their unique ideas — and their distinct approach to some of the most common political questions — that set them apart from more traditional candidates.
Williamson focused on her call for a campaign that focuses on love and trumpeted her belief that the United States has been “sliding for the last 40 years away from democracy and into aristocracy,” while Yang talked about his desire to legalize small quantities of opioids, provide all Americans with $1,000-a-month payments and create a system for punishing news outlets that push incorrect information.
Here are CNN’s takeaways from Yang and Williamson’s town halls:
Love, not fear
Williamson said Sunday that she believes love — a key rhetorical pledge in her 2020 campaign — is the best way to win the White House in 2020.
It’s a unique pitch from a presidential campaign, especially considering President Donald Trump successfully ran in 2016 as a tough, direct politician who, at times, fed fear to win over voters.
“I think it’s the only thing that can win the White House,” Williamson said. “I think far more people love than hate. The problem is those who hate, hate with conviction. Conviction is a force multiplier. Those who hate today, those who fear, are reflective. They are organized and convicted. Those of us (who) love need to become convicted and organized.”
Williamson used terrorism as an example, saying that while people know how “powerful (terror) is when it’s turned into a political force, it’s nothing compared to how powerful love is when it’s turned into a political force.”
She added: “That’s what I’m trying to do with my campaign. That’s the message I’m giving.”
CNN’s Dana Bash pushed Williamson on how love could be used against Trump on the debate stage.
“What do you do with a child? How do you treat a psychopath?” Williamson asked rhetorically. “I would not go in expecting a reasonable conversation.”
‘It’s been a point of confusion’
One of the more curious aspects of Yang’s longshot bid is that white nationalists online have been drawn to the son of Taiwanese immigrants.
Yang said Sunday that he was confused by the support he has received online by some white nationalists.
“I disavowed any of that support,” Yang said Sunday. “I don’t want anyone that has an agenda different than that of this campaign. We’re trying to solve the problem.”
Yang joked about the support, too.
“I don’t look much like a white nationalist. It’s been a point of confusion,” he said to laughs, adding that one reason his campaign believes he has been getting the support is because he once retweeted a New York Times report that addressed the impact opioids are having on white communities in the Midwest and South.
Yang wrote in his book, “The War on Normal People,” that the group he worries about most in America is poor whites, something that is also believed to have encouraged support from white nationalists.
“In the context of my book, I was saying, how will this tribalism and violence manifest itself. Poor whites who felt like they had no future and then that violence would emerge in large part because that group would become increasingly angry and distressed,” he said. “That’s the context of the book.”
A hardline approach to Israel
Williamson would make a lot of history if she were to, unexpectedly, win the presidency in 2020 — for example, she’d be the first Jewish president.
It’s a fact Williamson noted while explaining why she would take a hardline stance on Israel if she is elected.
Williamson said while she would both support “the legitimate security concerns of Israel” and “the human rights and dignities and economic opportunities of the Palestinian people,” she would take a significantly hardline approach to the Jewish state.
“It’s been a long time since the United States could actually be considered by either side as an honest broker,” Williamson said.
Williamson laid out a view of US-Israeli policy that was significantly different than Trump and took aim at much of what the President has done on the issue.
“In me, you would have a president who says those settlements are illegal,” she said. “I would rescind the president’s affirmation of sovereignty of Israel over the Golan Heights.”
Williamson also personalized the issue, mentioning that her “love for Israel is second only to my love for the United States.”
“The alliance of the United States with Israel is extremely important,” she said. “It should be extremely important to all of us. If I’m president of the United States, the world will know, our greatest ally is humanity itself.”
How Yang plans to monitor malicious speech in the US
Yang said that he would like to hire a government ombudsman to monitor malicious speech in the US, particularly from the press.
“We have to be able to sort out people who are maliciously informing the American people and that to me is a much greater danger than we face now,” he said.
It’s a curious idea, given Trump has repeatedly and fervently maligned what he calls the “fake news” throughout his White House tenure. But Yang’s view is deeper than just media and includes people who are willfully misleading the public.
Yang noted how, in the United Kingdom, viewers of the BBC can petition an ombudsman, who can then take issues under review.
“So, if they can do that, why can’t we?” Yang asked.
Yang said foreign actors are investing money to maliciously doctor information to corrupt US democracy and “then, frankly, having a good laugh about it.”
“Right now we’re on the verge of a difficult time,” he said. “So, Americans can’t trust what we see,” he said.
‘An Asian guy who likes math’
Yang set himself apart from other presidential hopefuls in one key way on Sunday: Humor.
Few politicians try to use humor the way Yang does and it came across in his town hall.
“What I’ve been saying is the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math,” Yang said. He later added that he thought Trump’s nickname for him would be “Comrade Yang.”
When speaking about his family, Yang also joked about how his parents never thought he was going to run for president.
“Certainly, growing up as a skinny Asian kid, my parents were like, oh, you’re going to run for president someday,” Yang sarcastically said. “It was doctor, lawyer and then the list stopped, more or less.”
And even before the town hall, Yang was in a joking mood. When a CNN reporter asked him to name his favorite movie, the businessman said, “The Shawshank Redemption’ because it’s on TNT every three hours.”
Williamson said she supports reparations for African Americans whose ancestors were slaves and got creative and emphatic in emphasizing her support for the policy proposal.
“This is not a debt we can afford to delay any longer,” she said. “The economic restitution for two and a half centuries of slavery followed by 100 years of domestic terrorism.”
Williamson was blunt when she said it was time to support the policy: “Whatever it costs, it’s time to do this.”
The support for reparations puts Williamson further to the left than many Democrats, who have said they support researching the issue, but not outright supporting a plan for direct payments.
Yang said Sunday that he supports decriminalizing heroin and other opiates, but doesn’t back doing the same to cocaine.
“We need to decriminalize opiates for personal use,” Yang said. “I’m also for the legalization of cannabis.”
While some Democrats support legalizing marijuana — or at least allowing states to do it on their own — the idea of legalizing opioids is significantly out of step with most in the party. Legalizing would mean use would be entirely legal, while decriminalizing, under Yang’s plan, would stop treating the possession of “small quantities of opioid use and possession (anything under five-10 days of personal use)” as criminal.
Yang pointed to countries, like Portugal, which have done the same.
“There are countries, including Portugal, that have decriminalized for personal use. They say if you have more than a week supply, then we may treat you as a dealer or supplier or someone engaged in a criminal enterprise and then it’s illegal. If we catch you with a quantity that suggest you’re using it personally, we refer you to treatment,” Yang said. “That’s what we need to do in the United States.”
Yang said cocaine is not on his list to decriminalize because “the addiction has very different features.”
CORRECTION: A subhed on this story has been updated to reflect Yang’s position on decriminalizing heroin and more information was added to that section on the difference between decriminalizing and legalizing.