Feb 29, 2020

Axios AM

By Mike Allen
Mike Allen

🚨 Breaking: Health officials in California, Oregon and Washington state worry about the coronavirus spreading in the West after at least three patients were infected by unknown means. Details.

🎬 Sneak peek: See a clip from Alexi McCammond's "Axios on HBO" interview with Harvey Weinstein prosecutor Cyrus Vance Jr., who tells us how the convictions could impact future sex-crime cases. Season 3 premieres tomorrow at 6 p.m. ET/PT.

  • Enjoy your Leap Day, Feb. 29.
⚡ 1 big thing: U.S. signs deal to withdraw from Afghanistan
U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar sign the agreement in Doha, Qatar, today. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. has signed a deal with the Taliban aimed at ending its war in Afghanistan after 18 years, starting with the withdrawal of around 4,000 troops "within months."

  • Why it matters, from Axios World Editor David Lawler: America has wanted out of Afghanistan for at least a decade. The deal signed in Doha should finally accomplish that — but peace for Afghanistan remains far off.

Between the lines: The agreement has lots of wiggle room for interpretation, so we recommend the "healthy dose of skepticism" that retired Army four-star Gen. Jack Keane advised on Fox News on Feb. 16 as progress became apparent.

What to watch: As the U.S. begins to pull troops out, the Taliban has agreed to prevent terror groups from filling the void and to enter negotiations with the Afghan government.

  • The first hurdle for those sides to clear is a prisoner swap, involving some 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 Afghan troops.
  • They must also agree on Afghanistan's political future. 
  • It's uncertain what will happen to the protections the U.S. has helped guarantee for minorities and women, including access to education, after American troops are gone.

What they're saying:

  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said "the future of Afghanistan is for Afghans to determine," adding that the agreement "creates the conditions" for peace but would be worthless absent "concrete action."
  • Sher Mohammad Abas Stanekzai, the Taliban's deputy negotiator, called today a "day of victory."
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Photo: Hussein Sayed/AP

How it happened: Negotiations began in September 2018, led by veteran U.S. diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad.

  • The Afghan government bristled at their exclusion, but the Taliban would negotiate first only with the U.S.
  • A deal was almost reached last fall, complete with a ceremony at Camp David, but collapsed after the Taliban killed a U.S. soldier.
  • Today's deal sets a timeline for U.S. withdrawal, first to 8,600 troops and then to zero within 14 months.

The big picture: Since the American invasion in the wake of 9/11, 3,500 U.S. and allied troops have been killed, tens of thousands of Afghans have lost their lives, and the U.S. has spent $2 trillion.

🥊 A Trump administration official told me this is a "huge milestone moment, while at the same time being the beginning of the process":

  • "Washington may not get it but the American people will love it."

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2. Bernie's socialism rebrand
Sen. Bernie Sanders rallies yesterday in Springfield, Mass. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Sen. Bernie Sanders is trying to rebrand socialism in the U.S., but he'll have to overcome common fears about the word — fears the Trump campaign is hungry to exploit, Stef Kight writes as part of our "What Matters 2020" series.

  • Why it matters: Sanders may face a major challenge in convincing Americans in their 40s or older that there's a meaningful difference between what he supports, democratic socialism, and the authoritarian socialism that we've seen in regimes like Venezuela.

Between the lines: No nuance will stop the Trump campaign, or Republicans in general, from painting Sanders as a dangerous threat.

  • He'll just be "Socialist Bernie Sanders," without any of the discussion of how democratic socialism might be different.
  • "It doesn’t matter to us who is carrying the banner," Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh told Axios. Because, he said, the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and raising taxes are all "big government socialist issues."
  • Sanders' defense of Castro appears already to have hurt him in Florida.

Defining the term: Sanders' democratic socialism is more about softening capitalism and compensating for growing economic inequality.

  • It takes a lot from Scandinavian social democracies and builds on existing programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.
  • "We must recognize that in the 21st century, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, economic rights are human rights. That is what I mean by democratic socialism," Sanders said in a speech last year.

Generational divide: Many Americans, especially older generations, can't shake socialism's associations with communism and strict government control.

  • A Harris Poll last year found Generation Z has a more positive view of the word "socialism" than previous generations, and along with millennials — are more likely to embrace socialistic policies and principles.

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3. Biden's big bet

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Most Joe Biden admirers Axios interviewed in South Carolina, where he's vowed to win today's primary, said they're unfazed by his embarrassing losses in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, Alexi McCammond reports from Columbia.

  • Why it matters: Biden has bet it all on South Carolina to position himself as the best alternative to Bernie Sanders — his "good buddy," he tells voters before skewering Sanders' record and ideas.

The state of play: If Biden wins South Carolina commandingly, he has momentum for Super Tuesday, three days from now. But if Sanders manages to even come close, it'll fuel his juggernaut.

  • Polls show Biden leading here by 20 points, but his supporters feel the weight of his national political survival on their shoulders — and Sanders is whittling away at Biden's lead.

By the numbers: Real Clear Politics polling averages have Sanders in the lead in California, Virginia, Texas and North Carolina — all big Super Tuesday states.

  • FiveThirtyEight estimates that if Sanders were to win in South Carolina, he could end up with a little more than half of all the pledged delegates after Super Tuesday.

What we're seeing: Unlike in Iowa and New Hampshire, where voters shop around to the end, some South Carolinians we met had already voted early and were still showing up to their candidates' events. 

Joe's hand: Many voters said they felt a personal connection with Biden because of his longtime ties to the state.

  • Biden has vacationed there for years. And his friendship with Rep. Jim Clyburn, who endorsed the former vice president this week, gives Biden credibility with older African-American voters.
  • In South Carolina, where a majority of Democratic voters are African American, you can't talk to a Biden supporter without Barack Obama's name also coming up. "He trusted Biden," said Sue Gibbs, 68.

Bernie's hand: The fact that Sanders is in second place in South Carolina — after being crushed there in 2016 — shows how fast Democratic politics are changing.

  • Luke Waldrop, 23, said a Sanders win in South Carolina would send a massive signal to the country that he can beat Trump: "We’re not known for being the most forward-thinking as far as Democratic candidates go."

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4. Don't panic about the corona correction
Courtesy Barron's

The stock market is heading south with unprecedented velocity. Does that mean it's crashing? Are we in a recession? Is this a financial crisis?

  • No, no, and no, says chief financial correspondent Felix Salmon.

How it works: A stock-market crash happens when the market plunges suddenly, often for no particular reason.

  • The stock market might be down 13% from its highs, but that decline took place over more than a week.
  • Crashes can cause investors to lose a lot of money very quickly, but seldom have a big effect on the economy as a whole.

Where are we now? Stocks are down, but it's a relatively orderly (if fast) decline, without a lot of panic selling. Financial analyst Josh Brown calls it "Panic Holding."

  • Because we're more than 10% below the all-time highs, this is a "correction."
  • If we go down to 20% below the all-time highs, it will officially be a "bear market."

Context: The market is still about 30% higher than it was when Trump took office.

5. Next front in R&D war

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

In 1945, engineer and science administrator Vannevar Bush laid out a framework for support of science in the U.S. that drove prosperity and American dominance for 75 years.

  • That model — discussed in Washington this week at an event by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine — isn't enough anymore, Alison Snyder and Bryan Walsh write.

For years, America's proportion of global R&D spending has been declining.

  • National Science Board chair Diane Souvaine told Congress in January that "in 2019 China may have surpassed the U.S. in total R&D expenditures.”
  • While China has stolen a march in some fields, like 5G and some fields of machine learning, Souvaine said Washington still spent nearly $70 billion more than Beijing on basic research in 2017.

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  • 📱Sign up for Bryan Walsh's twice-weekly newsletter, Axios Future.
6. 🚲 1 food thing: The real price of eating in

Food delivered via an app can cost as much as 91% more than ordering the same dish in the restaurant, the N.Y. Times' Brian X. Chen found:

  • Why it matters: "When you order through a delivery app, you pay multiple parties, including the driver and the companies that offer the apps, like Uber Eats and Postmates. In some cases, you pay the restaurants extra fees as well."

Chen used Grubhub, Uber Eats, DoorDash and Postmates to fetch turkey sandwiches from Subway, and a "family value meal" from Panda Express.

  • His findings: "The markups can be downright egregious."

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Mike Allen

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