Julián Castro had a ready answer Sunday when HuffPost Editor-in-Chief Lydia Polgreen, in the "lightning round" of their interview at ACL Live at the Moody Theater, asked what has become the question of the moment in the 2020 Democratic presidential race: "Capitalism or socialism?"
"Capitalism," Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio and secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration, replied without hesitation.
Until U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' strong presidential run in 2016, that answer would have been about the only one that a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in the United States could sensibly provide. But the Vermont senator is now leading the field among announced Democratic candidates for president. And another democratic socialist, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who spoke Saturday to a ballroom and two overflow rooms at South by Southwest, is the hottest property in Democratic politics.
Beto O'Rourke, the former El Paso Democratic congressman who is expected to jump into the presidential race any day now but passed on a chance to be interviewed at one of the Moody forums (he made a surprise visit Saturday to the premiere of a documentary about his U.S. Senate campaign as part of SXSW), answered the question in the same manner as Castro. Before he was elected to the U.S. House, O'Rourke was a tech enterpreneur.
And yet, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, another Democratic presidential candidate who started 15 restaurants in what seemed by definition an act of successful capitalism, hedged on the question in an interview on MSBC's "Morning Joe" on Friday. He got another chance Sunday, at the same Texas Tribune/SXSW forum that occupied the Moody Theater this weekend, explaining the counterproductivity of people "using terms in the most divisive way we can, again and again and again," while noting that as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, if you "call yourself a capitalist, a large number of people think you're evil."
There might be no more ruthless capitalist undertaking than running for president, a cutthroat business built on advertising, messaging, branding and doing in the competition. It is survival of the fittest.
"The fact that we have 14 or 15 people running is great for the Democratic Party," Castro said. "The person who earns the nomination is going to be stronger for it."
'Breath of fresh air'
But Ocasio-Cortez, as much as anyone, has changed the Democratic rhetorical landscape surrounding that competition.
Ocasio-Cortez, whose district includes parts of the Bronx and Queens, captured the popular imagination when, seemingly out of nowhere, she upended U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley, a Queens Democrat who was thought to be a potential future speaker of the House, in the 2018 Democratic primary. She hasn’t had a quiet moment since, becoming a leading progressive voice, an architect of the Green New Deal — proposed economic stimulus programs to address climate change — a source of concern for more moderate Democrats and a favorite target of Republicans and conservative media, who pay a lot of attention to her.
Her centrality at the current moment was underscored when Polgreen asked Castro, whose hopes depend on parlaying his identity as the only Latino candidate in the race, "What do you make of the person who has emerged as perhaps the most famous Latino politician in America, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?"
"I think (she is) a breath of fresh air, very talented, impressive, not only in her victory in New York, but also in the way she has articulated her vision for the country’s future," Castro said. "What I admire is she has to put up with so many attacks on a daily basis trying to undermine everything about her and she has handled it with a lot of class, with intelligence, with great arguments pushing back."
In her SXSW appearance, Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a more centrist Democrat, said she has backed the Green New Deal resolution put forward by Ocasio-Cortez, because she wants to harness the aspirational spirit and excitement behind the deal, not because she believes it can be accomplished in 10 years.
“Let’s stop admiring this problem and do something about it right now,” Klobuchar said.
Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sanders' chief competition on the left, said last week that she is not a socialist but instead favors "capitalism with serious rules."
Warren, who drew the biggest crowd of the eight announced Democratic candidates for president who appeared at SXSW over the weekend, talked about her calls to break up Big Tech.
For example, she said, Amazon collects user data and serves as the platform for an online marketplace, giving it an unfair advantage over its competition.
“My view of this is it’s a little like baseball,” Warren said. “You can be an umpire, a platform, or you get on with teams — that’s fine — but you can’t be an umpire and on one of the teams that’s in the game.”
Green New Deal
It is not all that clear exactly where the boundaries are between socialism and capitalism in a nation where Social Security and Medicare are sacrosanct even among voters who most revile socialism.
"There's fearmongering about what democratic socialism is," Ocasio Cortez said Saturday. It is not, she said, "government taking over the private sector."
Rather, she said, "we should be scared about corporations that have taken over our government. We should be wary of any entity where both of those are combined."
Hickenlooper's pitch is that he, as governor, has actually done what other candidates talk about.
For example, he said, under his leadership Colorado became the first state in the nation to enact methane capture requirements, which he said have been estimated to have the same impact as taking 320,000 cars off the road every year.
"My question is who else has done what we've done where we've actually sat down and achieved progressive accomplishment of actually creating a framework by which you can deliver a clean-energy economy that we're trying to get to as quickly as possible?" Hickenlooper asked.
But, he said, "if you ban fracking, you’re basically taking away someone’s private property. ... Someone owns those minerals, and once you end fracking, you’re saying that what they have of value is no longer theirs and they can't use it. You might as well ban gasoline."
In a question to Hickenlooper, BuzzFeed News Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith captured how much the political climate on the issue has changed in the era of the Green New Deal.
Noting that Hickenlooper was a petroleum geologist who, at 34, amid an oil glut, was laid off and had to start a new career, Smith asked him, "What you would say to a 34-year-old petroleum geologist today? Is that an ethical line of work?"
Hickenlooper declined to make an ethical judgment but said, "I would certainly tell them they should be sharpening their other skills."