Plus, a wild story about your data.
Today’s read: 8 minutes.
Candidates are turning their ire to Joe Biden, a question about the Bloomberg campaign and Tangle’s first “local hit” story.
Joe Biden campaigning in Iowa this summer. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore
Last night, The New York Times editorial board took the unusual step of announcing a “split decision” on its endorsement in the Democratic primary. The paper of record endorsed Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar. The editorial board is a group of the Times’ most respected opinion writers and every election it votes on endorsing candidates. This year it made its process as transparent as its ever been, releasing audio and transcripts of every candidate interview. During a television event to announce the vote, a member of the board read off the “top four” candidates that included Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren. The board ultimately settled on Klobuchar and Warren, two very different candidates, who it said had competing but equally compelling plans for America. Critics of its choice say the board is out of touch with America and noted that Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, the two most popular candidates in the polls, didn’t even make the board’s top four. Click.
Today is Martin Luther King Jr. day, a day to honor the civil rights activists’ birthday. I appreciated this message from New York City council member Mark Levine, who Tangle interviewed about anti-Semitism a few weeks ago:
What D.C. is talking about.
Joe Biden. In the last few days, the tension between Joe Biden and the rest of the Democratic field has ramped up. No campaign has been more critical of Biden than the Sanders camp, which began sharing old videos of Biden advocating for cuts to the Social Security program. Sanders also blasted out a newsletter claiming that Biden “lauded Paul Ryan for proposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare” as recently as 2018. Someone from the Sanders campaign shared a clipped video where Biden makes those comments. Social security, the program that pays monthly stipends to the retired or disabled, is often called the “third rail” in politics. That’s because working Americans spend a lifetime paying mandatory contributions to the program and expect to receive some of that money back once they’re eligible. On average, Social Security payments were about $1,461 per month in January of 2019. Making cuts or reforming the program is extremely unpopular, and Biden’s record of supporting reforms to the program is a major political vulnerability that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention.
What the left is saying.
It’s causing a lot of infighting. Biden’s camp demanded an apology and tried to claim the video was “doctored,” a defense that was quickly knocked down by news organizations across the country. But Sanders’ newsletter did take Biden’s comments from 2018 out of context (in a video, you can tell Biden is mocking Ryan, which doesn’t come off when you simply read his words). And a video shared by a Sanders campaign staffer was cut to make it seem like Biden was supporting Ryan when he is actually criticizing him. But that video isn’t “altered” or “doctored,” and older videos of Biden do accurately show him advocating certain cuts to Social Security that would be very unpopular today. Elizabeth Warren, who has had her own spat with Sanders, appeared to take the Vermont Senator’s side on Sunday. “Bernie Sanders and I established the ‘Expand Social Security Caucus’ in the Senate,” Warren said. “As a senator, Joe Biden had a very different position on Social Security, and I think everyone's records on Social Security are important in this election.” Sanders supporters have said it’s just another example — like Biden’s support for the Iraq War or the 1990s crime bill — that make him a vulnerability. Biden has accurately pointed out that his 2020 platform includes expanding Social Security spending. Here are Biden’s 2018 comments in full:
What the right is saying.
There is an interesting unified front from the right that simultaneously works to elevate Sanders and to deride him. Biden is considered the favorite of more moderate Republicans, especially those of the “never-Trump” ilk. Given that many Republicans have advocated cuts to Social Security in an effort to “balance the budget,” and Trump is currently looking to reduce Medicaid spending, it’s not surprising that they would take Biden’s side over Sanders. Even if you’re a conservative who can’t stand Trump, it’s likely that Biden is your top choice (Recent polling does show independents actually prefer Sanders over Biden). Many never-Trump Republicans who are concerned about Russian aggression and believe Russia interfered in the 2016 election also believe that Russia worked to elevate Sanders and sow discord in the Democratic party. As the conservative columnist and never-Trumper David Frum tweeted, “so odd how popular Sanders is with people who wish to keep Trump in the White House.” That may have been a reference to Hugh Hewitt, the Trump-supporting pundit who said he was voting for Sanders in the Democratic primary in Virginia. While Trump derides him as “crazy Bernie” and warns of how socialism will turn America into Venezuela, his supporters often express admiration for Sanders’ “burn it all down” attitude about establishment Washington and how things need to change. Trump even took the extraordinary step of taking Bernie’s side during the spat with Warren, and recently claimed that Democrats were “rigging the election again” against him. While pretty much everyone on the right reveled in the Sanders-Warren showdown, there are far more conservatives picking sides on this one — with a general split of never-Trump Republicans defending Biden and Trump supporters defending Bernie.
57% of retired Americans say that Social Security is a “major source” of their income. While the program has mixed reviews on its efficacy, it’s hard to imagine many Americans wanting to cut or reduce Social Security spending — and there’s a reason it’s called the third rail. Any American worker who has taken the time to look at their paycheck understands they are giving up a lot of money to Social Security and are expecting to get some of that back on the backend. If you’re a liberal voter comparing Biden and Sanders’ record, it’s absolutely true that Sanders has been more consistent in his support for Social Security spending and his push to expand it. I’m not sure any honest look at it could land you in a different spot. All that being said, though, there’s some dirty politicking going on here too. Biden’s record is relevant, but the 2018 video clip was misleading and so was the newsletter. In fact, in the speech, Biden explicitly says we need a progressive tax code that “raises enough revenue to make sure that the Social Security and Medicare can stay.” But that part of his talk was omitted entirely from the snippet of the video shared and from the transcript of the speech in the Sanders newsletter. To me, that rings of dishonesty. There’s plenty of real evidence for Biden’s wavering support on Social Security, but it’s clear this time around he’s promising to keep the program in place and expand it.
Your questions, answered.
Remember: Reader questions are encouraged! All you have to do is reply to this email and write in with your question. Be sure to tell me where you’re writing from.
Q: I also had a question regarding Michael Bloomberg and how he is financing his own campaign. Most politicians thrive off donations and the larger their campaign outreach could be. If Bloomberg were to theoretically win the Presidential election how do you think it would change many people’s opinions on donating to political campaigns? Personally, I think fewer people would be inclined to donate if they saw that he could do it on his own.
- Patrick, Toronto, Canada
Tangle: Hey Patrick and hello Canada! This is the first reader question I’ve gotten from our northern neighbor. This is a fascinating question and one that I think really illuminates the bind some liberals and progressives are in. For the last decade, taking money out of politics has been a major liberal priority, especially from the progressive wing. That really came to a head this election. Every candidate running for president on the Democratic side pledged not to take money from corporate PAC (PAC stands for “political action committee”). Several swore off super-PACs entirely. And Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both pledged not to hold any high-dollar private fundraisers during their campaigns. This isn’t as cut and dry as it sounds, but for the most part, Democrats are trying to distance themselves from the big money that has had a stranglehold on Washington D.C. for decades.
What’s fascinating about Bloomberg is that he is — in some ways — the very embodiment of big money in politics. He’s a wealthy billionaire donor who for years has helped even the scales for Democrats when election season comes around. With a single check, Bloomberg can donate as much money as millions of average Americans. This cycle, some people are now estimating he’ll spend as much as $2 billion, an unthinkable sum for a single person and enough to close the cash on hand gap between Republicans and Democrats. He’s pledged to “spend as much as it takes” to beat Trump and has repeatedly said he will spend the money on House and Senate races, and for other presidential candidates, even if he isn’t the one running against Trump.
But in other ways, Bloomberg isn’t anything like the donors Democrats are really worried about. Super-PACs, corporate PACs and lobbyists are dangerous for Democracy because they have a clear end game or interest. Some might want to block the FDA’s approval of a drug because they’re invested in a competitor. Perhaps the money is there to keep certain ammunition legal because they’re invested in a company that sells that kind of ammunition. Maybe a PAC is funded by a corporate military equipment company whose stock value skyrockets when we’re in a state of war. All of these things lead to the kind of dirty Washington politics Americans seem to loathe, the politics where PACs are buying votes to get the outcome they need to protect a financial interest.
This kind of politicking has made a lot of folks on the left loathe Bloomberg by default. Instead of simply working to defeat Trump, he’s spending obscene amounts of money — money that could be spread across hundreds of candidates — on commercial spots during the Super Bowl to tout his own record. Many progressives view it as a vanity project. In that sense, I think Bloomberg is just hardening many liberals’ disgust at the billionaire class. The fact he is now competitive in the Democratic primary seems almost entirely attributable to the endless amounts of money he has spent on campaign ads that have boosted his approval rating. So while PACs may be the swampy part of D.C. that influences votes in Congress, we’re quite literally watching Bloomberg buy an election. (Note: there is something to be said for Bloomberg’s professional record. He’s an incredibly successful businessman and served as mayor of America’s biggest city. But it is indisputable that without his exorbitant wealth he would not be competitive in this race.)
All this gets me to your question: I don’t think Bloomberg winning would change people’s feelings about funding campaigns. In fact, I think the outcome would be the opposite of what you imagine. I think the 5 million people who spent their own hard-earned money to fund Bernie Sanders’ campaign would be categorically outraged that a rich billionaire beat them because his individual wealth so far outpaced their collective wealth. I think a Bloomberg victory could legitimately force Democrats to consider prohibiting candidates like him from being on the ballot unless they hit a certain donation threshold that proved there was a national interest in his ideas before he could spend enough money to convince Americans to vote for him. And I think a victory for him would be a huge blow to swathes of the left that have been desperately trying to reduce the influence wealthy Americans have on day-to-day politics.
During a Tangle poll a few weeks back, I asked you about new sections you’d like to see in Tangle. The most popular choice was a “small local story that has larger implications for the country.” Today is the first “Local hit,” a section I plan to incorporate occasionally going forward.
Today in Richmond, Virginia, there is a pro-gun rights rally taking place. Thousands of second amendment activists are descending on Richmond while brandishing firearms in a show of support for the right to bear arms. Virginia is pushing through a slate of new gun measures that require background checks on all firearm purchases, limit handgun sales to once per month and give localities the right to ban firearms from government buildings or certain events. The measures have passed the state Senate but haven’t passed the Virginia House. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency and banned all weapons from Capitol Square, where the rally is set to be held. But video out of Richmond this morning showed the scene as heavily armed pro-gun activists and militias showed up on busses from across the state. A group of gun safety groups called off an annual rally scheduled for this afternoon that they’ve been holding for 28 years after they said they received serious threats of violence.
A story that matters.
Clearview AI, a little-known startup company, has developed a “facial recognition app” it’s handing over to law enforcement agencies to help identify criminals. Clearview has scraped three billion images from Facebook, YouTube, Venmo and other websites. The app works by taking a picture of someone, uploading it, and allowing the system to match that photo to a face in its database. Law enforcement agencies have used the app to identify “shoplifting, identity theft, credit card fraud, murder and child sexual exploitation cases,” according to The New York Times. About 10 years ago, I wrote the beginning of a screenplay that followed the only people in America who didn’t have their photographs online. They were hiding underground to avoid having their picture taken, fearing they’d be put into a social media system that the government had commandeered to track every American citizen. At the time, I thought it was a very forward-thinking, imaginative idea for a sci-fi flick. This app makes me think that day might be closer than I imagined. Click.
- 16%. The percentage of registered voters who have confidence in the news media, according to a Fox News poll.
- 365. The combined appearances of Ken Starr, Alan Dershowitz, Pam Bondi and Robert Ray — the president’s counsel in the Senate impeachment trial — on Fox News since January.
- 33,000. Estimated number of “birth tourists” — or people who come to the U.S. to have their children — each year.
- 0.2%. Pete Buttigieg’s lead over Michael Bloomberg in RealClearPolitics’ national polling average, as of Monday.
- 70%. The estimated voter turnout in 2020 based on current voter enthusiasm, which would equal the highest voter turnout since 1900.
- These latest numbers out of Iowa:
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Have a nice day.
Amsterdam is stepping up as the test dummy for erasing young adults’ debt and seeing how it impacts the economy. The city is running a trial project to negotiate with creditors to buy out debt owned by young Dutch adults. Participants in the program can increase the amount of debt the government helps take off their plate by participating in job training or educational programs. 1.4 million young Dutch adults have student debt and a third of all Amsterdammers between the age of 18 and 34 have debt. The program launches as calls for erasing student debt in the U.S. get louder and other countries experiment with debt erasure programs. Whether you support debt cancellation or not, this will at least be another data point to judge how successfully these programs can help alleviate debt and what their impact on an economy is. Click.