This was my third year at the Texas Tribune Festival, and without a doubt, 2019 was the biggest and most interesting Festival. The overarching topic was last week’s announcement of an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. Once again, TribFest was centered on and around Congress Avenue in downtown Austin. I saw four of the five Democratic presidential candidates who attended the Festival: Pete Buttegieg, Beto O’Rourke, Michael Bennet and Julian Castro. (I missed Amy Kobluchar.) I saw one US Senator (Ted Cruz), one US Representative (Michael Bennet), one 2019 UN Environment award winner (Katharine Hayhoe), several Texas state legislators, and lots of journalists and pundits.
Thursday September 26
After picking up my badge, I watched two podcast recordings on Thursday afternoon. The first one was Recode Media (Peter Kafka and Ben Smith) with topics such as deep fakes and the Steele dossier. The second podcast was The Weeds (Matthew Yglesias, Jane Coaston, and Dara Lind, pictured above) discussed issues surrounding homelessness and how the working poor are now finding themselves without housing. I was not able to attend the Opening Keynote with Will Hurd on Thursday evening.
Friday, September 27
One-on-One with George Will
Moderator: Mark Updegrove
George Will, a Conservative political commentator, believed that Trump will finish his term because no more than three Republican senators will vote to impeach. He thought that impeachment will not help the Democrats win in 2020. He noted that division had been a hallmark of the Republican Party until Trump’s presidency. His favorite modern-day conservative presidents were Eisenhower and Regan. He said that true “conservatism today is an orphan.”
The Name of this Panel is Talking Heads
Panelists: Matthew Dowd, David Jolly, Elise Jordan, Jennifer Palmieri, and Rick Wilson
Moderator: Evan Smith
Each year Evan Smith questions a panel about current issues. As expected, impeachment was the only topic for this year’s conversation. All panelists agreed that Trump will be impeached, but probably not convicted by the Republican-led Senate. Palmieri noted that the Ukraine inquiry could be a more specific issue than election interference by the Russians (as documented in the Mueller report). Dowd saw no downside for the Democrats to back impeachment. Wilson observed that Republicans are using this to raise money and stated that Trump is a “fecal iceberg” (i.e. there is lots of bad stuff below the surface).
Panelists: Katharine Hayhoe and Amy Myers Jaffe
Moderator: John Schwartz
Just the previous evening, Hayhoe received a prestigious UN Environment Champion of the Earth award in New York City. She explained that scientists have known that humans are creating climate change for a long time, dating back to the 1850’s. Jaffe added that now CO2 can be measured, analyzed, and traced back to its source, so there is not much question about whether carbon originates. Schwartz said that some people might be surprised to learn that Texas is a leader in renewable energy. The conversation then shifted to the risks caused by climate change. Jaffe said that many super-fund sites are at risk due to climate change, which in turn creates health risks. Hayhoe noted that people who are already vulnerable and disadvantaged are most affected: “Climate change is loading the weather dice against us.” Jaffe explained that the trend toward mega-cities will force energy companies to change their business models. She recommended the following actions:
- Re-evaluate our waste management policy
- Move to cleaner fuels in the trucking sector
- Develop more efficient transportation systems
- Implement carbon pricing
- Set a date to phase out combustion engines worldwide
One-on-One with Pete Buttigieg
Moderator: Stephanie Ruhle
Ruhle asked, “Impeach or not to impeach?” Buttigieg answered, “Yes [to impeach]. This is about the integrity of the system.” Ruhl also asked, “Don’t you think Trump is offering people fried chicken, but you are offering them vegetables? Buttigieg laughed and replied, “No, my opponents are offering vegetables. I am offering an Impossible Burger.” He added that you cannot beat Trump at his game, and in practice, America First means America Only. They also discussed his positions on public education, health care, and big business. His husband, Chasten Buttigieg, was seated next to Austin Mayor Steve Adler in the front row of the Paramount.
The Impeachment Download
Panelists: Mieke Eoyang, Frank Figliuzzi, Mark McKinnon, and Ashley Parker
Moderator: John Hellemann
Hellemann began with the question: “How did we get to an impeachment inquiry?” Answers varied from “This is clearly a national security issue.” to “Trump actually believes this was an appropriate call with Ukraine.” Figliuzzi explained that the phone call notes must be documenting damaging information based on how they were classified. [These notes were subsequently released the following day.] McKinnon observed that impeachment can be soul-crushing for those inside the White House. Figliuzzi added that it took great courage for a career intelligence officer to submit this whistle-blower report. Parker’s theory was that impeachment won’t matter to those who had voted for Trump in 2016 since they already knew what they were getting. But she agreed with David Axlerod’s opinion that people are tired of the everyday drama in this presidency.
Saturday, September 28
One-on-One with Beto O’Rourke
Moderator: Garrett Haake
Beto O’Rourke was definitely more awake and energetic than I was on this Saturday morning at 8:30 AM. I didn’t take many detailed notes, but I did jot down a few of his more memorable quotes:
- “Beyond a shadow of a doubt, we now know that the President must be impeached.” and “I am cautiously optimistic about the path that we are on.”
- Would a President O’Rouke pardon Donald Trump? “No.”
- “[The August shootings in] El Paso, whether I wanted to or not, forced me to see things more clearly.”
- “I’m in this thing until the very end [i.e., the Democratic nomination].
Up in the Air
Panelists: Douglas Brinkley, Lori Garver, and Thomas Zurbuchen
Moderator: Eric Benson
Saturday was jam-packed with interesting sessions, so I could only stay for half of this discussion about the U.S. space program. Brinkley’s latest book is American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race (which I have read). Zurbuchen grew up in Switzerland, but was influenced by Apollo 11 and now works for NASA. For him, “The Apollo program unlocked the heavens.” Garver observed that “sending rovers to Mars are pennies on the dollar compared to sending people.” Brinkley reminded everyone that scientists were revered back in 1960. However, public opinion of scientists changed after the Apollo program due to the use of chemicals like napalm and Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Although the Apollo program had its critics, it was worthwhile to go to the moon in his opinion.
The Blue Team
Panelists: Chris Bell, Amanda Edwards, MJ Hegar, Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, and Royce West
Moderator: Patrick Sviteck
This was my favorite TribFest 2019 session. Five (of the seven) 2020 Democratic candidates for US Senate were together on the same stage. Next year the winner will oppose John Cornyn, the incumbent Republican Senator from Texas. All of these candidates stated that they supported the impeachment inquiry. All supported some type of gun control, including buy-back programs, although their specific positions varied slightly. All supported expansion of Medicare in Texas, but Hegar also supports a private insurance option for those who want it. Sviteck asked each candidate why they are running for the Senate. Here are their answers:
- Ramirez: Was asked to run by Beto’s campaign and others. Has experience with passing laws and mobilizing young Latino voters.
- West: Has a long track record in the Texas Legislature and has support from most of the Democratic state legislators.
- Bell: Has a demonstrated record on fighting for equality and against corruption.
- Edwards: Has experience as a Houston City Council member and will be a servant-leader.
- Hegar: Can attract Texas independents. Wants to continue to serve her country after serving 12 years in the Air Force.
Live Recording of “Why is This Happening?” with Chris Hayes and Ted Cruz
Hayes introduced the discussion, saying that he is interested in the current debate about today’s definition of conservativism. Cruz said that Texans like Trump’s policies, but they wish someone would take away his Twitter. He added (to audience laughter), “But, of course, he was not my first choice for president.” Other Cruz quotes about the president: “Trump is not complicated to figure out: he likes people who praise him.” “I thank God for Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi [because they are challenging him].”” I think he [Trump] has backbone and courage.”
Turning to foreign policy, Cruz said that he agrees with Ronald Reagan: “Peace through strength.” Hayes observed, “That is the exact opposite of what is happening in North Korea.” Cruz replied, “I have concerns with that. I believe in the Bully Pulpit power of the presidency.”
Their discussion on climate change was more heated. Cruz said that the climate alarmists have not been correct in their predictions so far and that the data on climate change is mixed. Hayes disagreed with this assessment. Cruz added that he does believe that we have a responsibility to clean up the environment. He noted that a Texas oilman, George Mitchell, invented fracking which transformed the energy industry. Cruz and Hayes were able to agree that innovation is the best way to move away from dependency on coal. There was a funny moment of confusion where Hayes talked about “distributing power.” Cruz interpreted this as a socialist view (“power to the people”) until Hayes clarified that he actually meant the distribution of electrons via the power grid.
Finally, the two men talked about the Ukraine impeachment situation. Cruz didn’t seem to know much about the Crowdstrike server issue. He said that he found Trump’s request to investigate the Bidens “more troubling” and that “Donald Trump says things frequently that I wish he wouldn’t say.” He agreed that this should be investigated.
One-on-One with Michael Bennet
Moderator: Lawrence O’Donnell
Regarding impeachment, Bennet said that we need to make sure that the Senate process and vote is not politicized. “This is not exactly a jury trial.” He does not want anyone “to be as cynical or malevolent as Mitch McConnell. But I wish that the Democrats were as strategic as him.”
Benner’s book is called Land of Flickering Lights. The title refers to the current [low] standard of success for government that seems to be whether we can keep the lights on. He joked that he should have titled his book My Story: The Best Friend You Ever Had in the Senate.
If elected president, Bennet said that he would end Citizens United, stop gerrymandering, and bar politicians becoming lobbyists. Visiting European allies would be a high priority, and he would increase the earned income and child tax credits. He said that he is amazed that Texans are putting up with eminent domain land grabs for a border wall.
One-on-One with Julian Castro
Moderator: Katy Tur
Castro said that he was in favor of impeachment right after the Mueller Report came out, and after last week’s news, he was even more convinced. He thought that Trump will be indicted after leaving office. If Castro wins the election, he would not be inclined to pardon Trump. He said that Trump is trying to smear Joe Biden and that “Joe is honorable and honest.”
Castro predicted that the next president will have an opportunity to bring people together. His immediate priorities as president would be to stop gerrymandering, reduce influence of money in politics, and push Congress to be more transparent. He would also push to remove the filibuster since he believes this has caused much of the gridlock in Congress.
Castro feels that we can maintain border security with order and compassion. It should still be a crime to cross the border, but this should be a civil (not a criminal) offense. He would create a Marshall Plan for Central America. His campaign position is to base healthcare off of Medicare while allowing people to choose other insurance plans and to invest more in mental healthcare. He has challenged the moderators of the next debate to ask a question about homelessness and housing.
If he does not win, Castro said that he will support the next Democratic presidential nominee enthusiastically. He is not going to run for Senate because his experience is as an executive, not a legislator.
Closing Keynote: One-on-One with Nancy Pelosi
Moderator: Evan Smith
After two full days of TribFesting, I decided to watch Evan Smith’s interview with Nancy Pelosi from my home computer. (That’s a screen capture above.) I had seen the House Speaker in person at last year’s Festival, and I didn’t really feel like waiting in a long line on Saturday evening.
Pelosi spoke directly to the audience in the Paramount—and those of us at home—about the rationale and process for the impeachment inquiry. She commented, “It’s sad. We must be somber. We must be prayerful, and we must pursue the facts further to make a decision as to did this violate the Constitution of the United States, which I believe it did…”
Pelosi’s appearance had been scheduled months before last week’s announcement, but in light of the week’s news, this was a appropriate closing session for TribFest 2019.
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