WASHINGTON — As Senator Elizabeth Warren laid out her case for taxing the assets of the richest Americans the other day, she turned to the obvious villain, a man so wealthy and powerful he could hinder any policy that didn’t suit him.
“People like him can even buy themselves the presidency of the United States,” Warren’s exploratory committee wrote in a fund-raising e-mail.
The target of her ire was not President Trump, but another member of the 1 percent: Howard Schultz, the former chief executive of Starbucks whose musings on an at least partly self-funded presidential run seem almost tailor-made to fuel her broadsides against the billionaire class.
In the month since she launched her exploratory committee for president, Warren has repeatedly called for self-funding billionaires to stay out of the race, arguing that the wealthy beneficiaries of an economy she believes is rigged should not be in charge of trying to fix it.
Now, as billionaires such as Schultz and Michael Bloomberg flirt openly with running for president, Warren has doubled down on her criticisms, turning them into her first major targets of the 2020 race and carving out a lane for herself as the billionaire-slayer of the primary.
The billionaires themselves have taken notice, with Schultz and Bloomberg ripping her tax plan in recent days. Bloomberg predicted, Cassandra-like, that the country could become like socialist Venezuela when asked in New Hampshire about Warren’s wealth tax on assets of more than $50 million, while Schultz called the proposed tax “ridiculous.” Warren is delighting in the crossfire, using it to solicit donations from her supporters and demonstrating how she would take the fight to the left’s most-hated fat cat: Trump.
Baiting billionaires — especially Schultz, who is panicking Democrats by threatening to run as an independent in 2020 — is a strategy with upsides. It dovetails with her message of tackling wealth inequality in a “corrupt” Washington and grabs her headlines at a time when she needs them. The senator hasn’t managed to break double digits in early polls of the Democratic primary electorate, and Senator Kamala Harris of California snagged the spotlight all last week with a slick rollout of her presidential bid.
“It gets attention and it contributes to her fund-raising base,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who managed Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. “There’s no doubt about that.”
But other candidates — most notably Senator Bernie Sanders, who electrified a portion of the primary electorate in 2016 by railing against the greed of millionaires and billionaires — could jump in the race soon with populist messages of their own that crowd out Warren.
“The question is: Is it a wide enough lane in this field to get to the nomination?” Trippi said. “Now there are younger progressive candidates, there’s Bernie Sanders, there’s other people who are saying similar things.”
For now, Warren is betting that Schultz and Bloomberg personify her warnings about the ultrarich, whom she has for years accused of rigging economic policies for their benefit, in a way that attracts more voters to her message. Bloomberg, a former three-term mayor of New York City who has championed gun control and combating climate change, could pick up Democratic support in the months ahead. But Schultz is an easy target who naturally engenders some skepticism from Democratic activists.
“It’s hard to believe that someone with that kind of money is going to care that much about someone who has very little,” said Don Altena, a member of the board of supervisors in Buena Vista County, Iowa.
The 2016 primary, in which Sanders nearly edged out Hillary Clinton on a similar message, underscored how unsatisfied Democrats and left-leaning independents are with the status quo.
“You couldn’t invent a more obtuse, narcissistic foil for Elizabeth Warren than Howard Schultz,” said Neil Sroka, a spokesman for the liberal group Democracy for America. “The only thing better is if the Koch brothers decided they were also going to run.”
Sroka added that Sanders is missing out on the opportunity Warren is seizing to define herself against the self-funders by not yet being in the race.
And it’s Warren, not Sanders or other populist candidates, who has managed to define the terms of the Democratic primary so far by laying down the marker that candidates should reject super PACs and self-funded campaigns.
“I think that all of the Democratic primary candidates should lock arms and say: We are not going to have anything to do with PAC money, with super PACs, and with billionaire self-funders,” Warren said in a campaign stop in South Carolina last week, suggesting that any battle over the role of money in the primary is one she thinks she can win.
Already this year, the billionaire hedge fund manager and Democrat Tom Steyer announced he would not run for president after seriously considering doing so, although one person close to Steyer said Warren’s calls for self-funding billionaires to stay out of the race had no effect on his decision.
Adam Green, a cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said Warren’s stance will “shame” billionaires and help make the primary less hospitable overall to wealthy candidates who want to buy their way in.
But Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist based in Iowa, said he is “dubious” that laying into billionaires like Schultz and Bloomberg will help other candidates rise above the pack.
“You can get lost in the daily back and forth of picking at other candidates’ statements, but if you don’t articulate why you’re doing this and what the bigger purpose is, this stuff can really be seen as a distraction,” Link said.
Even if Warren does manage to dent the viability of a candidate like Bloomberg or Schultz, that does not necessarily mean it will improve her own standing with voters. In the 2016 Republican primary, for example, Chris Christie, then the New Jersey governor, memorably eviscerated Senator Marco Rubio of Florida during a debate in New Hampshire. Rubio’s candidacy never recovered, but it was Christie who dropped out of the race days later, after a poor showing in that state’s primary.
And, Link pointed out, recent history suggests voters are not automatically turned off by billionaire status.
“We’ve got a billionaire in the White House right now,” Link said. “In fact, he was worth a lot more money than his opponent and he convinced working-class voters that he was more in touch with them than his opponent [was].”