HANOVER, N.H. — Surging to the front of the crowded Democratic primary field, Elizabeth Warren has taken heat over the past few weeks for not saying how she would fund a Medicare for All plan. But when it comes to defending another piece of her platform — a wealth tax on fortunes over $50 million — the Massachusetts senator has gleefully gone to battle with her critics.
“There are some billionaires who say, ‘Whoa! What do you mean tax our fortunes here? After all, I worked hard. I stayed up late,’ ” Warren said during a town hall Thursday on the campus of Dartmouth College. She cocked her head, eliciting chuckles, and quipped: “Wow. Unlike anybody else.”
With these joyful clapbacks and good-natured scorn, the liberal firebrand is leveraging the criticism of her wealth tax to burnish her populist appeal just as her front-runner status has made her a top target.
Criticism about the wealth tax from the Wall Street crowd and fellow Democrats has given Warren plenty of opportunity to avoid the rocky terrain of ending private health insurance to territory she is more familiar with: Soaking the rich.
One of her Democratic rivals, former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke, called Warren “punitive” when asked about her wealth tax in last week’s debate.
The former Treasury secretary, Larry Summers, said Wednesday on NPR that the tax is “a riverboat gamble with the future of the American economy.” And Harvard economist Greg Mankiw lamented to CNBC that the tax would cause ultra-rich couples to divorce in order to dodge the fee.
Warren is relishing the criticism, tickling audiences in early states by gently mocking concern for the nation’s wealthiest.
“I know there are some billionaires who are freaked out by this — boo hoo,” Warren said to laughter during a town hall at the University of Iowa Monday night. “I’m not proposing this because I’m cranky. I’m not mad at them!”
At an earlier event, she cracked up the crowd by impersonating the critics of her plan. “Two cents to the billionaires? My gosh. How mean to them!” she said to laughter. Warren then went on to outline what her proposed tax would pay for, including universal child care.
Several polls have suggested that taxing the assets of multimillionaires — 2 percent for every dollar over $50 million — is widely popular across the political spectrum, with a majority of Democrats backing it.
The enthusiastic defense of the cornerstone of her domestic policy agenda marks a stark contrast to the way Warren has handled attacks on her proposal to overhaul the nation’s health care system by embracing Senator Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All proposal.
On Sunday, after facing days of flack from her Democratic rivals for refusing to concede that new taxes would be needed to fund the extremely expensive proposal, Warren said she would release a plan on how to pay for a nationalized health care system “over the next few weeks.”
She pushed back on reporters on Monday who asked her about the plan, instead asking repeatedly for questions on her latest education proposal. She eventually answered some Medicare for All questions.
But Medicare for All does not animate Warren’s stump speeches the way the wealth tax does. Over five events in Iowa where several voters were picked randomly to ask questions, no one asked Warren to elaborate on how she would pay for the system.
Nor did any voters ask her about Medicare for All in Hanover.
In contrast, some of her supporters yelled “two cents!” when Warren begins to talk about the wealth tax during her regular stump speech at the University of Northern Iowa Tuesday. She tells audiences that their first $50 million is “free and clear” under her plan, prompting laughter when she mimics the relief she sees in the audience.
“I one-hundred percent support the wealth tax,” said Bailey Renfro, an 18-year-old student at the University of Northern Iowa, who waited in line to grab a selfie with Warren after her event Tuesday. “The amount that she’d be able to do with that, the amount that we as a country would be able to do with that, is incredible.”
Still, some voters who haven’t yet embraced Warren harbor concerns about how she will deliver on all her big plans, including universal health care.
“It is concerning. How do you pay for it?” asked Liese Shewmaker, 82, an undecided Democratic voter who lives in Hanover. “You know, I love what she’s offering,” but can she pull together the money to pay for it, Shewmaker wondered, as she waited for Warren to arrive to her first of two public events in New Hampshire Thursday.
The enthusiasm for Warren’s wealth tax has baffled and angered some elite economists and others. Summers, who previously tangled with Warren when she helped sink his chances of being nominated as chairman of the powerful Federal Reserve Board of Governors under Obama, engaged in a lengthy debate with an economist who is advising Warren on the tax on NPR Wednesday. Summers said that he is in favor of closing loopholes for the wealthy but argued that taxing assets wouldn’t work. He said that approach has failed in some European countries, in part because it can be difficult for wealthy people to produce enough cash to cover taxes on illiquid assets such as yachts, Rembrandts, and diamonds, as Warren likes to say.
“The right emphasis is on making sure the taxes are based on the ability to pay and are much more progressive than they are right now,” Summers said. “But it’s not an emphasis on that salvation for the United States is tearing down the wealthy.”
Summers also argued that he believed the tax would be ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, a view the Warren campaign rejects.
A panel on a Sunday political show last week also showed that some are still coming to grips with the popularity of the tax. Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel argued the wealth tax was a winner in the primary and the general election, to the surprise of the show’s host. “It shows I live in Manhattan. In this place it’s not popular,” joked George Stephanopoulos, host of “This Week.”
Variety reported in February that Stephanopoulos inked a deal with ABC News believed to be valued at between $15 million to $17 million a year.
Ryan Wangman contributed reporting. Victoria McGrane can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac. Liz Goodwin can be reached at Liz.Goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.