2020 Democrats embrace populist message against corporations and the wealthy

Posted at 10:17 PM, Feb 18, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-18 22:17:28-05

It’s a rallying cry for Democrats seeking the White House in 2020: fight for Main Street against a system that benefits corporations and the wealthy.

More than a decade after 2008 financial crisis, which was sparked in part by big banks making risky mortgage investments, it has become a consensus position among the emerging 2020 Democratic field that big corporations have gotten away with far too much for far too long at the expense of middle- and working-class Americans.

But looming large over the growing primary field is the 2016 battle between Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over Clinton’s paid speeches before banks like Goldman Sachs. Sanders used the speeches to paint Clinton as too close to the industry and therefore unable to effectively combat its abuses.

With Sanders considering a second bid and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who built her political career railing against big corporations, already in the race, any perceived closeness to Wall Street will likely be seized upon in a crowded field of candidates looking to differentiate themselves from one another.

“It’s going to matter, and it’s going to be an issue,” said Neil Sroka, spokesman for the progressive group Democracy for America. “In the minds of Democratic activists, the big problem in American politics today is the power that millionaires, billionaires and the wealthy, powerful industries have over our politics. That’s where willingness to confront powerful interests is going to be an important point of differentiation.”

And candidates have been quick to emphasize their willingness to take Wall Street and special interests head on.

Seeking to burnish their populist credentials, all of the major Democratic candidates who’ve entered the 2020 fray so far have pledged to reject money from corporate political action committees.

When Amazon decided last week to scrap plans for a new headquarters in New York City after facing backlash from local and national progressive leaders, some 2020 Democrats used it as an opportunity to highlight their populist message.

Warren tweeted, “.@Amazon — one of the wealthiest companies on the planet — just walked away from billions in taxpayer bribes, all because some elected officials in New York aren’t sucking up to them enough. How long will we allow giant corporations to hold our democracy hostage?”

And in a statement, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who represents New York, said, “Walking away so quickly shows that Amazon was interested in the taxpayer assistance and not being a good neighbor in Queens hiring the greatest workers in the world.”

On the stump, the disparity between the wealthy and everyone else has emerged as a common thread among many of the candidates running.

Sen. Kamala Harris touched upon it in her announcement speech, telling a crowd in Oakland, California, “When bankers who crashed our economy get bonuses but workers who brought our country back can’t even get a raise, that’s not our America.”

“We should close those tax loopholes designed by and for the wealthy and bring down our debt and make it easier for workers to afford child care, housing and education,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, of Minnesota, said in her announcement speech earlier this month.

Already, however, some of the coming fault lines among Democratic candidates have begun to surface.

Gillibrand, who represents New York City, one of the largest financial centers in the world, responded on Twitter last month to a report about her outreach to Wall Street executives while she was gauging support for her campaign.

“What’s important are the facts of my record,” she tweeted, noting she was a co-sponsor of the financial transaction tax, supported reinstating a new Glass-Steagall Act and voted twice against the bank bailout.

“All while representing New York,” Gillibrand added.

Sroka, the spokesman for Democracy for America, said while Gillibrand is not the worst on these issues, other candidates might be better.

“In this primary, there are a lot of alternatives,” he said.

The issue has not dominated discussions during Gillibrand’s stops in the key early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, so far. Instead voters have frequently asked about criminal justice reform, the opioid crisis, college affordability, immigration, LGBT issues and immigration.

That’s because the race is just getting started, said Waleed Shahid, spokesman for the progressive group Justice Democrats.

“I think no one is driving the issue yet in part because the person who usually would isn’t in the race yet,” Shahid said, referring to Sanders.

“Young people care about this. Occupy Wall Street was a millennial-led movement. People know Wall Street caused the crisis,” Shahid said “And when Sanders and Warren were fighting Wall Street, [Gillibrand] and [Sen. Chuck] Schumer were definitely not the ones leading the fight. She’s been behind the curve.”

Other Democratic operatives with an eye on 2020 note the increased focus on small dollar donations and say the issue of individual candidates accepting Wall Street money is not going to be a deciding factor for most Democrats.

“This is really going to be, I think, the first cycle where most of those big donors and bundlers are pretty irrelevant, because of what low dollar donations are able to do,” said Adam Parkhomenko, a Democratic strategist and longtime Hillary Clinton aide, who believes Democrats care most about supporting the candidate who can beat Trump. “Do Democratic primary voters care about candidates’ ties to Wall Street? Absolutely. But this is a very different primary cycle because it’s the age of Trump.”