Looking to 2020 campaign, populist left is targeting even liberal billionaires
With populism making a strong comeback on the Democratic left, liberals have found an early, enticing foil in the party’s 2020 presidential primary: billionaires like Michael Bloomberg who could bankroll their own campaigns or finance others.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts fired several shots after entering the race this month, denouncing “campaigns that are funded by billionaires, whether it goes through super PACs or their own money.” When Rachel Maddow of MSNBC asked if billionaire Democrats like Bloomberg and Tom Steyer should not run for president, Warren made a distinction.
“I just mean people should not be self-funding,” she said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist who is eyeing 2020, inveighed against “the billionaire class” recently, and left-wing activists heckled Bloomberg over his wealth when he visited Iowa last month. Even Connie Schultz, the wife of Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, mocked suggestions that Bloomberg would spend $100 million or more on his own possible presidential campaign.
“‘I want a man who wants to buy himself a presidency,’ I’ve thought precisely never,” wrote Schultz, whose husband is weighing a 2020 run.
As three dozen Democrats consider a 2020 run, potential candidates are taking populist positions on capitalism, income inequality, taxes and health care, and embracing the favored label of the moment: “progressive.” Many of them have little interest in the pragmatic politics and big-donor appeal of Hillary Clinton, the 2016 nominee.
But with Democrats needing to define themselves in what will likely be a crowded field, the most liberal candidates are making an issue of wealth even though some of these billionaires have liberal policy views themselves.
On Wednesday, Steyer took himself out of the 2020 running after weeks of hinting that he might enter the race. A fierce advocate of impeaching President Donald Trump and a longtime environmentalist, Steyer sidestepped a question about Warren and self-financed campaigns as he announced he would focus his time and money on trying to get Trump impeached.
“I believe in the grassroots, just as Senator Warren does,” he said. “What we have pushed for is the broadest possible democracy, power to the people, at all times. What we’re saying is – what counts in this is the voice of the American people.”
Warren has moved out front quickly to use wealth as a cudgel against potential opponents and try to establish herself early with voters as a vanguard of middleclass and working-class concerns – a kind of “people-notthe-powerful” message that Democrats like Al Gore tried in the past. If they run, liberals like Sanders, Brown and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke are likely to advance similar arguments, as well.
Anti-billionaire populism is convenient for both Warren and Sanders. Neither has the financial wherewithal to fund their own campaign, and both have welldeveloped lists of online donors. With ideological leftists ascendant in the party – like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her call for much higher taxes on the wealthy – their attacks on billionaires may appeal particularly to liberal millennials and middleclass workers in early caucus and primary states.
“If you look at the entire period since the financial crisis, the resentment of corporations – and particularly how they failed to work for their own companies and their own workers – that resentment is strong,” said Stan Greenberg, a veteran Democratic pollster. “People really do believe they’ve been buying influence. They think there’s a nexus of CEOs, corporations, big business and politicians that’s corrupt.”
Warren repeated her criticism of self-funded campaigns last Saturday in Iowa, on her first campaign swing to the early caucus state.
“None of us want super PACs to help us, and none of us believe the billionaires should be able to self-finance,” she told a crowd in Des Moines.
Rob Hogg, a state senator and 2016 Democratic convention delegate, said the message could resonate with some Iowa voters.
“You have the reaction from
activists in both political parties that we’re not sure we want this campaign to be bought,” Hogg said.
In South Carolina, an early primary state, a candidate’s extreme wealth could be a turnoff to a state party membership that skews poorer than Democrats in the rest of the country, said Gibbs Knotts, a professor of political science at the College of Charleston. Many voters are fed up with the concentration of political power among the wealthy, he said.
“For Democrats, given the unique character of the South Carolina Democratic electorate, I think that would be something that could be hard to overcome,” said Knotts, who is writing a book about the South Carolina primary.
Self-funding can cut both ways. Not only do candidates with vast resources have the ability to weather campaign setbacks that can dry up donations, they also can argue that they are not beholden to unpopular corporate interests.
Laura Belin, a close Iowa caucus observer, said she doesn’t think being a billionaire self-funder is necessarily a deal-breaker.
“I don’t think of Iowans as automatically rejecting a billionaire candidate,” said Belin, an author on the Bleeding Heartland blog. “I feel like there are bigger issues for people that are more like litmus test issues, like Medicare for All.”
Rather than accepting contributions from special-interest PACs whose backers fuel disgust, Bloomberg can point out that he made all the money himself – via his company that pioneered providing computerized data to investors – and owes nothing to anyone.
“He’s never taken a dime of any special interest money,” said Howard Wolfson, a top adviser to Bloomberg. “That fact has allowed him to act independently, totally on the merits, without ever having to wonder what donors or other special interests expect or want from him. Mike is somebody who did not grow up with privilege. He made all of his money on his own.”
Matt Mackowiak, an Austin-based Republican strategist, pointed to another advantage for Bloomberg.
“In Bloomberg’s case, he’s been extremely generous in philanthropy over his life. It’s hard to make a case that he’s been selfish,” said Mackowiak, suggesting that Bloomberg could counter criticism of his wealth by emphasizing his record of promoting the public good.
While casting billionaires like Bloomberg as plutocrats may resonate among some Democrats, longtime party advisers point out that the strategy is tricky and that, by embracing it, Warren and Sanders are ignoring historical reality: Several of the party’s wealthiest leaders have been among its most progressive.
“If you look at the last century, the people who did the most, in many ways, to advance progressive politics in the country – FDR and the Kennedys – all came from great wealth,” said Bob Shrum, a longtime adviser to Democratic candidates.
Billionaire ex-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg may run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Suggestions that he might self-finance a campaign have met with derision, such as when left-wing activists heckled him over his wealth during a visit to Iowa.