Look­ing to 2020 cam­paign, pop­ulist left is tar­get­ing even lib­eral bil­lion­aires

Tri-City Herald (Sunday) - - Depth - BY STEPHANIE SAUL

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.

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