Elizabeth Warren is setting the Democratic field’s hostile tone on tech — and Joe Biden is struggling to find his voice.
That’s one upshot from Tuesday night’s debate. The former vice president was the quietest person on stage on the question of how to handle Silicon Valley. His rivals, echoing Warren, expressed degrees of unease with companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter and how they’re reshaping everything from elections to news to jobs to privacy.
The contrast has become increasingly apparent in recent months, and it reflects the larger dynamic between the two candidates: Warren’s allies call Biden unduly meek in the face of major national challenges, including the growing dominance of the tech giants. Biden’s partisans dismiss Warren’s proposals as simplistic, including her plan to break up the companies. Warren was out front early with a strategy to dismantle the likes of Facebook and Google, expanding her progressive appeal and leaving Biden to explain how he would handle them.
Pressed for a statement on the issue, Biden’s campaign told POLITICO that the former vice president is broadly concerned about economic concentration and would “aggressively” use antitrust law and other tools to ensure that “all corporations” do right by their workers and customers. But Biden views Warren’s singling out of tech as misguided and doesn’t think a president should tell antitrust enforcers which companies to go after, his campaign said.
A close adviser said Biden’s camp is reluctant to become drawn into what it views as Warren’s “weird litmus test.”
“It’s easy to say you want to go after ‘Big Tech’ and break them up,” said one senior economic policy official from the Obama White House who remains sympathetic to Biden. (The person spoke on condition of anonymity to freely discuss tensions that go back to the days of a presidency that Warren also served in.) “It’s a heck of a lot harder to come up with a coherent theory of the case of why that’s a better outcome for consumers, prices, and innovation.”
The Warren campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
But Warren’s approach looks to be working for her. Even where it might be least expected: In the last quarter of fundraising, she raised nearly a quarter-million dollars from employees of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, some of the very companies she has pledged to break up.
Sally Hubbard, the director of enforcement at the Open Markets Institute, an advocacy group deeply involved in the push for antitrust enforcement on tech companies, argued that Biden is carrying on the Obama administration’s light-touch approach to the industry. Meanwhile, Warren is tapping into Americans’ emerging sense that something is not quite right with Silicon Valley.
“People are understanding that it’s not just some technocratic, boring area,” Hubbard said of the antitrust debate Warren has helped ignite. “It’s fundamentally about equality and freedom, the American way, the American dream. It’s at the heart of capitalism and what we think of core American values.”
Hubbard said she sees the Silicon Valley workers who give to Warren as acting in their own interests: Corporate breakups mean more employers to compete for their labor. Another factor is tech employees’ agreement with Warren’s push to fundamentally restructure the U.S. economy, said Peter Leyden, who runs a public policy-focused Silicon Valley media startup called Reinvent.