In this edition: Democrats take it to the tech industry, Bill Weld ambles toward history, and the ACLU makes a big election investment.
Next year's SXSW needs a panel on whether electric scooters should be illegal (the answer is “yes"), and this is The Trailer.
AUSTIN — On the first weekend of one of the country’s biggest tech conferences, Democrats running for president walked onto the stage of the Moody Theater and talked about how to cut that industry down to size. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who had just rolled out a plan to break up the largest tech companies, set the tone for everyone.
“We want to keep the marketplace competitive, not let a giant who has an incredible information advantage have a manipulative advantage,” Warren said at a Saturday afternoon Q&A at South by Southwest (SXSW). “When someone gets market dominance, they then start to destroy competition in the very world that gave them birth.” Her talk was the only one by a presidential candidate that filled its venue. (Sens. Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders, who have drawn the largest crowds of the Democratic field, did not attend this year.)
SXSW was not an obvious place for Warren's argument to work. The conference, a place where start-ups such as Twitter and Uber broke through to mass audiences, is among other things a celebration of unfettered markets. Four years ago, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) made a buzzy trip to Austin, stopping into panels and tech incubators. Libertarian-minded Republicans wanted to set innovators free, he argued, while Democrats wanted to lock them in chains.
But this year's conference, coming after weeks of debate about capitalism, socialism and the Democratic Party, became a place for Democrats to talk about all the rules capitalism was missing. Ignoring the jargon, they talked about the inevitable clash with big tech and the role for government regulation. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who has pitched herself as a moderate who could win back skeptical conservatives, found herself talking about the need for more antitrust law. Asked by tech journalist Kara Swisher whether “Facebook and Google should be allowed to buy anything big right now,” Klobuchar did not say yes.
“We've got to look carefully at all of these deals,” she said. Then, she talked up her own legislation to crack down on monopolies, “to supercharge the agencies” and apply rules normally reserved for companies that charge consumers to companies that sell to advertisers after collecting data. Rather than differing with Warren, Klobuchar wanted to do “stuff Elizabeth is trying to get at in a different way.”
No Democrat proposed an idea quite as big as Warren's. She would define companies that run marketplaces of their own and are valued at more than $25 billion as “platform utilities,” with new restraints. If implemented, tech giants that have absorbed smaller companies and used them to advertise and sell their own products would have to be broken apart. While announcing the plan in New York, she congratulated the city for the collapse of a deal to bring Amazon jobs to Queens with a tax incentive package.
When asked about this, the eight other candidates who traveled to Austin this weekend tended to agree with Warren, at least on the basics.
“Is that worth considering? Sure,” said Julián Castro of Warren's antitrust plan. “I agree that we have to be much stronger in terms of antitrust enforcement. I believe that we need to ask a lot more of people at the top in this country, and of wealthy corporations. I don't understand how Amazon made $11 billion in profit last year, paid no federal taxes, and at the same time, New York was about to offer them a $3 billion package to locate their second headquarters.” (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Castro has positioned himself on the left of the Democratic field. But former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, who has embraced his depiction as a centrist, also said it was time to think about cracking down on monopolies and mergers.
“There was a period 40 or 50 years ago when large companies would try to merge together, and there was a strong feeling that the public was better served by having more competitors,” Hickenlooper said in an interview. “Right now it seems like we say, well, if we get down to two of these other two or three competitors, that's a competitive system. That's probably nonsense. What are the benefits to society when you have mergers of really large companies like these? Not just tech companies, but banks? It's in what we call 'value capture.' It's the companies saying: Well, we don't need two HR teams, we'll lay these people off.”
Before he arrived at the conference, Hickenlooper had been the unwilling participant in an argument with Howard Schultz, who's considering a presidential run as an independent. The former Starbucks chief executive, perturbed by Hickenlooper's answer to a question about whether he would call himself a “capitalist,” tweeted that “if even a successful businessman and entrepreneur like Governor Hickenlooper can't openly support capitalism in the Democratic primary, it's clear this is Senator Sanders' party now.”
But Schultz, who took questions at a Saturday morning session at the conference, struggled to define what he was arguing against. Asked to define “socialism,” he invoked the crisis in Venezuela; then, after some boos, he said capitalism was a force for good that needed to be rethought a little.
“We want our free enterprise to be sustainable,” Schultz said. “Is it perfect? No. Does it need to be refined? Yes. Do businesses have a moral obligation, in addition to making money? Yes.”
Across the conference, the only full-bore critique of capitalism came from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who said capitalism as practiced in 2019 meant that “any human and environmental cost was written off in the quest for profit. "
“That ideology is not sustainable, and cannot be redeemed,” she said.
But among the Democrats running for president — even Schultz, who argued that he has been rendered politically homeless — there's neither a call for capitalism to be dismantled nor one for it to be kept as is. Over the weekend, while they hashed this out, most of SXSW’s attendees were in other rooms. But the debate is coming to them eventually.
Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses (Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom, 401 likely caucusgoers)
Joe Biden — 27%
Bernie Sanders — 25%
Elizabeth Warren — 9%
Kamala Harris — 7%
Beto O'Rourke — 5%
Cory Booker — 3%
Amy Klobuchar — 3%
Julian Castro — 1%
Michael Bennet — 1%
Pete Buttigieg — 1%
Steve Bullock — 1%
John Delaney — 1%
Jay Inslee — 1%
There are lots of semi-useless national polls and only a handful of standard-setting state polls. This is one of the latter. It's also the first to come back from the field twice, having tracked Democratic sentiment in December. Since then, there's been big movement for only the three top white male candidates (or potential candidates); support for Biden down five, support for Sanders up six, and support for O'Rourke down six. Warren and Harris gained support within the margin of error, while Booker and Klobuchar lost it.
At this same point in 2015, the Iowa poll found Hillary Clinton more than 50 points ahead of Sanders and then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at the front of a crowded GOP lineup. So the pure horse race is interesting but hardly determinative. Two other questions are more interesting. First, a full 43 percent of voters say that Sanders's “time as a candidate has passed,” while 31 percent of voters say that of Biden. That goes a ways toward explaining why the crowded second tier of campaigns think voters will peel away as they become familiar with younger candidates.
Second, the state's Democratic electorate is all in on two ideas that are being pegged as far left, but have fairly broad support. Ninety-one percent of Iowa Democrats want a candidate who favors a "Green New Deal,” either in full or in steps; 89 percent favor a wealth tax, as proposed by Warren and embraced by some other front-runners. This is something to watch out for: Democrats want to win, and they do not see ideas such as these as impediments to winning.
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AUSTIN — William Weld, the first and so far only Republican primary challenger to President Trump, will sometimes drive from Massachusetts to New Hampshire and see who wants to talk. He'll schedule some town hall meetings and, like any other person running for president, will answer questions from whoever shows up.
“They're very good,” Weld said Saturday, polishing off a sandwich in a restaurant near Austin's lanyard-strewn convention center. “They're almost as good as an ed board.”
Not many presidential candidate would consider an “ed board,” a newspaper editorial board interview, to be an experience worth reliving every day. Not many candidates are like Weld, a two-term governor of Massachusetts who left the Republican Party in 2016, ran as the libertarian nominee for vice president and then decided that he was in a good position to save the Republicans from the person he calls the “malignant narcissist” in the White House.
“I didn't want to dribble around the court; I wanted to go right for the hoop,” Weld said. “That means going right at the president, and that means running as an 'R.' No one's ever going to say to the president: 'Sir, you must debate the Libertarian candidate.' "
In four weeks as a Trump challenger, Weld has clocked national TV interviews, sit-downs with major magazines, a segment on Cheddar — “a channel for millennials” — and a spot on the same South by Southwest stage as Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar. The only poll that tested him against Trump in New Hampshire put him 64 points behind. Other polls continue to add the name of former Ohio governor John Kasich, a better-known Trump critic who is noncommittal on running in 2020.
Weld is happily uninterested in the horse race, because he doesn't know how events will change Trump's fortunes and because he has tried everything else. “In 2016, Gary Johnson and I ran on what I thought was a very viable message,” he said, referring to his libertarian running mate. “The two parties were offering fear of the other guy, and we were two former Republican governors, offering a six-lane highway up the middle. We got 3 percent of the vote.”
It's not likely that Republicans would put Weld on a debate stage with the president; they have been reworking party rules to prevent it, and no president in the TV era has debated a primary challenger. So Weld has been taking shots from the side of the stage. “For the last 15 years, I've really thought that I could start this job on Monday,” he explained, sketching out a busy first-week agenda of bringing America back into the Paris climate accords and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Like other frustrated politicians running outside the Democratic Party, Weld thinks the Democratic shift to the left has opened some space for him. Weld watched Michael Capuano, the longtime Democratic congressman from Boston's liberal suburbs, lose by double digits to now-Rep. Ayanna Pressley, one of the few real left-wing coups of 2018. “I almost endorsed Mike,” Weld said, “not that anyone would have cared.” What this meant in 2020, he said, was that the many primaries that let independents pick a party — New Hampshire is a big one — could be reshaped.
That would be a titanic effort, and nothing about Weld's exploratory bid could be called “big” right now. He has a skeletal staff and a nearly ad hoc schedule. He has not raised much money. He also spares much of the Republican Party in his critique of Trump. Both of his Supreme Court picks, Weld says, were “first-rate,” a decision he came to after reading up on every shortlisted nominee. Trump's strategy of trying force Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro out of power, said Weld, was also smart. The problem was just that Trump didn't have a problem with more dictators.
“I don't think you'd need to give him sodium Pentothal to get him to say that he preferred not to have an election,” Weld said.
After lunch, Weld walked the three short blocks to the site of his big SXSW interview. “You're not going to hear any Abraham Lincoln speeches,” he warned. He was recognized immediately by fans and talked to them briefly about what brought them to Austin without saying that he was a candidate for president. No one else was walking these streets in a pinstripe suit.
Weld was stopped a few more times for photographs, as he talked about the stakes of the race. Kasich, who also appeared at the conference, and Howard Schultz, another speaker and the potential independent candidate, both talked about the Trump-led shift in the Republican Party in apocalyptic terms. But only Weld was running, and Weld had a light touch on every topic except for Trump. If Mike Pence led the GOP ticket, he said, he might not run. If Elizabeth Warren became the Democratic nominee, she was certainly equipped to be president. “She's got a good head on her shoulders.”
The big interview, at the same theater where “Austin City Limits” is filmed, was framed more seriously. Robert S. Mueller III had been an assistant in Weld's office when the future candidate was a U.S. attorney; Mueller, Weld said, was “the straightest guy I'd ever met in my life.” The crimes the president's associates has been convicted of were serious. Asked whether he would pardon Trump on the way out of office, Weld scoffed.
“At that point, I would hope that enough truth had filtered through and people understood that the emperor didn't have new clothes on, so people wouldn't take it,” he said. How high were the stakes? “It's not unthinkable that our democracy could perish.”
Bernie Sanders. He's holding his first South Carolina rally Thursday, in the same North Charleston gym that Kamala Harris filled on her first visit to the state.
Elizabeth Warren. She's building a southern tour around her March 18 CNN town hall, visiting some states that no Democrat has stopped in yet.
Jay Inslee. He's heading from SXSW to southern California, continuing his climate tour by visiting places damaged by forest fires.
Kirsten Gillibrand. She's spending the weekend in California for fundraisers, once a pretty common way for Democrats to spend time but made more controversial by the Democrats refusing to do it.
John Hickenlooper. He became the first Democratic candidate to mock independent quasi-candidate Howard Schultz on Twitter (though Sanders had done so in a TV interview), after Schultz accused him of being afraid to defend capitalism.
Julián Castro. He picked one of the first fights of the Democratic primary over reparations for the descendants of slaves, saying of Sanders on CNN, and then at SXSW, that the senator had no problem “cutting a check” for other causes. Sanders surrogate Nina Turner quickly responded, on Twitter, to say that Castro “exacerbate[d] the racial wealth gap” at HUD.
What it's called: Iron PAC
What it is: A new project from Randy "Ironstache" Bryce, the unsuccessful Democratic nominee in Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District last year.
What it does: Leverages Bryce's donor list, which topped 450,000 by the end of the campaign, to help working-class candidates. “We’re not going to be going out to help any millionaires or billionaires — just people that work, whether you’re a bartender, school bus driver, construction worker — somebody who works for a living,” he told Daniel Marans in HuffPost.
What it's spending: Nothing yet, but Bryce was one of the best fundraisers in the country, for a campaign that broke the traditional Democratic recruitment pattern. He raised nearly $9 million, much of it off the strength of a viral campaign ad in which he offered to switch jobs with Paul Ryan, who ended up deciding not to seek reelection.
What it's up against: The entire Democratic theory of who can win tough elections. Bryce, who polled well at some points in the campaign, fell back as Republicans pummeled him with ads about past DUIs and a brief lapse in his child support. A similar PAC, Krystal Ball's People's House Project, had a few star 2018 candidates who fell similarly short.
The ACLU's big 2020 plans. One of the most important developments in liberal politics since 2016 was the transformation of the American Civil Liberties Union, which turned a post-election flood of donations and membership applications into an expansive electoral strategy. In 2018, the ACLU helped pass a Florida amendment that is restoring voting rights to felons; last month Faiz Shakir, the operative who led the ACLU's political operation, became the campaign manager for Bernie Sanders.
With Shakir gone, the ACLU is stepping up its campaign efforts. In an interview, ACLU President Anthony Romero said that the group will spend $20 million to $30 million on its largest election plan.
“We want to make sure we turn out low-propensity voters,” Romero said. “Our membership includes some people who have been low-propensity voters, who skipped the last midterm or the last presidential election. We're going to exhort our members to engage, and engage other people, because this is not a time for anyone to stay on the sidelines.”
In 2018, the ACLU's main “people power” project was the Florida initiative, which put it at the head of a nonpartisan coalition. (To pass, Florida constitutional amendments need support from more than 60 percent of voters.) That sort of work would continue in 2020, Romero said, and the group was looking at Colorado, Arizona and Washington, all states with ballot initiative processes, to pass new "criminal justice reform and voting rights" measures.
But the ACLU wants to play a real role in the Democratic primary, too. It will be holding candidate forums and sending each candidate a questionnaire. Members of the ACLU in early states, Romero said, were encouraged to “document what the responses are” when candidates take questions on civil liberties, including abortion rights and prison reform. A new website for the “Rights for All” campaign encourages ACLU members to get candidates on the record on the toughest issues, and gives them some tips on how.
“The risk in a field with a lot of progressives is that they all begin to sound like each other and they mumble through the details,” Romero said. “Our job is to make sure that we are able to articulate what [are] the distinct differences in how each candidate is looking at the issues. We want them to get precise.”
"Presidential candidate Andrew Yang has a meme problem,” by Russell Brandom
How an only-in-2019 sequence of events, starting with an appearance on Joe Rogan's podcast, turned a presidential candidate focused on universal basic income into an ironic hero for the alt-right.
On the trail, Sanders is attracting the largest crowds of any Democrat. It's also true that he has lost some support since 2016.
If the centrist independent does run for president, his former company could become problematic for liberal coffee lovers.
At SXSW, festivalgoers — and the O'Rourke family — watched Beto-mania sweep Texas and his children deal with the grueling campaign in a documentary screening.
. . . two days until Joe Biden's speech to firefighters
. . . eight days until Elizabeth Warren's CNN town hall