The 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls largely agree in a battle cry saying it is time to punish Wall Street and Big Business, with hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer becoming the latest to accuse corporations of robbing working folks of a shot at success.
Bashing corporate America and Wall Street has long been a staple of the far-left campaigns of Sens. Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
But the rhetoric is popping up in stump speeches by moderate Democrats as they look for openings to hit the strong economy under President Trump and for ways to pay for new benefits they promise.
Mr. Steyer, who entered the race this month with a pledge to spend $100 million of his fortune on the run, took aim at corporations when he rolled out his campaign platform.
“I grew up believing the point of our country was to be free — the promise that everyone could make a good life for themselves,” he said. “But over time I saw big corporations buy our democracy and set the rules for the sake of their profits, not for the common good. Corporate lobbyists rigged the system, leaving the majority of Americans walled off from their dreams.”
He vowed to “turn this around” by giving Americans unencumbered access to voting, clean air and water, education, a living wage and constitutionally protected health care.
Ms. Warren last week debuted her “Plan to End Wall Street’s Stranglehold on Our Economy.” She proposed to crack down on private equity firms that she called “vampires” that buy up companies, bleed them dry and walk away rich.
“These firms are gobbling up more and more of the economy,” said Ms. Warren, who wants to change the tax code and bankruptcy laws to protect businesses from corporate raiders.
These types of messages resonate with Democrats’ liberal base and give the candidates a way to diminish the Trump economy, said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.
“It fits the narrative of the progressives,” Mr. Madonna said. “Remember, they don’t want to talk about unemployment, they don’t want to talk about job growth, they don’t want to talk about GDP. They want to talk about the people left behind and go after the 1%. Well, the 1% and the stock market, it seems to me, are interlinked.”
The moderates in the races, including the front-runner, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, also use the anti-Wall Street construct to talk about the economy.
“This country wasn’t built by Wall Street bankers and CEOs and hedge fund managers. It was built by the American middle class,” Mr. Biden frequently says on the stump.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California touts her record of prosecuting corporate villains as the state’s attorney general, including winning a $25 billion settlement in 2012 from Wells Fargo and other big banks for foreclosure abuses.
She takes aim at Wall Street to finance a “Medicare for All” program of government-run health care, as opposed to Mr. Sanders’ plan, which he acknowledged would entail a middle-class tax hike.
“I’m not prepared to engage in a middle-class tax hike,” Ms. Harris told CNN. “Part of it is going to have to be about Wall Street paying more, part of it is going to be about what we tax in terms of financial services.”
Reining in Wall Street and corporations does not top the list of Americans’ concerns, though the economy ranks higher for Democrats than Republicans, according to a Reuters/Ipsos survey last month.
Americans’ primary concerns were health care and immigration, both registering at 19% in the poll.
The level of concern about major issues was linked to partisanship, with 37% of Republicans naming immigration as the top concern and 26% of Democrats naming health care. The economy ranked a distant second for both parties: 12% for Republicans and 14% for Democrats.
Democratic strategist Zach Friend said the anti-Wall Street rhetoric taps into growing concerns about income inequality in America, the same vein President Trump tapped in 2016 with his appeal to the “forgotten men and women.”
The difference is Mr. Trump blamed bad trade deals and excessive government while Democrats blame tax breaks for the wealthy and unchecked corporate greed.
“In many respects, the economic message of Trump in 2016 was a populist and anti-corporate one that resonated with workers that have seen corporate riches while their wages have mostly stagnated,” said Mr. Friend. “Democratic candidates are taking different approaches on how forcefully to argue this point, but, unquestionably, voters are frustrated by working harder and still feeling like they are barely getting by.”
Still, going after Wall Street and corporations isn’t a slam-dunk for Democrats in the primaries or in the general election.
“It’s a good message but not enough to win the nomination. What Democrats want most is a candidate who can beat Trump,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon.
Mr. Madonna, the pollster, said attacks on Wall Street will help in some primaries but don’t work in a general election against Mr. Trump.
“It doesn’t appear to me that is an argument that’s working because Trump’s base, the white working class in particular, is solidly behind him,” he said. “There is no evidence in the polls that his support amongst the working class has diminished.”
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