WASHINGTON — Some billionaires are not happy with Senator Elizabeth Warren — and she appears thrilled about it.
After Bill Gates overestimated how much he would pay under her proposed wealth tax, she added “A Calculator for the Billionaires” to her website to help him and others figure it out. When a hedge fund manager got emotional in a TV interview in which he blasted Warren’s plans, her campaign started selling mugs emblazoned with the words: “Billionaire Tears.”
And after the attacks from the ultra-wealthy only seemed to amplify, she released her sharpest response yet: a TV ad that calls on billionaires to share the wealth and slams four of them by name — and net worth.
Warren is ratcheting up her attacks on billionaires in a strategy that political analysts say could help her in two ways in her race for the Democratic presidential nomination: by diverting voters from criticism of her ambitious policy plans by moderate Democratic candidates and by boosting her primary chances as she vies with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders for support from the party’s liberal wing.
“I think it’s great for Warren,” Brad Bannon, an unaligned Democratic strategist, said of her battle with some of the nation’s richest people. “When all is said and done, there’s only going to be two Democrats left standing, and one of them is going to be progressive and the other centrist. . . . Her job right now is to make sure she and not Sanders is going to be the progressive favorite.”
Unlike Sanders, who calls himself a Democratic socialist, Warren is a self-avowed capitalist and a believer in open markets; she says she wants only for them to face tougher regulations.
Sanders has also made a case against the ultra-rich, unveiling his own plan to tax the wealthy and going so far as to say “billionaires should not exist.”
Asked whether she agreed with him at a forum this month, Warren gave a swift and emphatic, “No.”
“You make it to the top, to the tip-top, then the answer is: Pay a wealth tax, so that we can invest and create opportunities for everyone else,” she said, echoing her proposal for an annual tax of 2 percent of all assets over $50 million and 6 percent over $1 billion.
As Warren has climbed ahead of Sanders in many polls, America’s billionaires have trained their eyes on her. Their attacks on Warren could stem from a mix of sexism and belief that she now poses the greater threat, but also because her campaign has been more explicit in name-checking billionaires, analysts said.
“The Sanders campaign strategy seems to be more about organizing grass-roots support for himself in early states and less overtly aimed at them,” said Rebecca Eissler, an assistant professor of political science at San Francisco State University.
Warren, on the other hand, has set her sights squarely on the billionaires.
Her calculator has buttons for 10 specific billionaires so people can see how much they’d pay. One is former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recently indicated he was weighing jumping into an already crowded Democratic field. Another is Gates, the Microsoft cofounder, who sparked the calculator idea after he claimed he would have to pay $100 billion under her tax plan.
Her calculator says he would have to pay $6.379 billion the first year.
Warren’s latest campaign ad, airing on the CNBC business cable channel that’s a favorite on Wall Street, blasted hedge fund manager Leon Cooperman and former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, as well as TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts and PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, both of whom have heavily contributed in support of President Trump.
“It is time for a wealth tax in America,” Warren says in the ad, delivering a speech at the center of a packed and energetic town hall. “I‘ve heard there are some billionaires who don’t support this plan.”
In an appearance on CNBC this month, Cooperman appeared to shed tears as he contemplated a run between Trump, whom he called “polarizing,” and Warren, whom he spent much of the interview criticizing for taxing the wealthy and “peddling idiocy.”
Warren’s ad features snippets of Cooperman speaking and then slaps his image with the words, “Charged with insider trading.” In 2017, he and his firm settled an insider trading case with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Blankfein fired back at her in a tweet Thursday in which he took a shot at Warren’s claims to Native American ancestry. “Vilification of people as a member of a group may be good for her campaign, not the country. Maybe tribalism is just in her DNA.”
Mobilizing resentment toward the wealthy has proven to be a successful strategy in the past and could resonate at a time of growing income inequality, said Spencer Piston, an assistant professor of political science at Boston University.
“As a rhetorical device, this particular group of billionaires will make all billionaires look bad, and I suspect it is likely to be effective,” he said of Warren’s campaign ad.
Warren, who built a political career through her efforts to rein in big banks after the 2008 financial crash, has long railed against Wall Street.
“Her antagonism for billionaires didn’t just spring up when she decided to run for president — she comes to it naturally,” Bannon said.
Analysts said her latest fiery exchanges with billionaires couldn’t have come at a better time: Warren has been taking hits from other candidates concerned they need to stop her momentum less than three months before the Iowa caucuses.
Centrist Democratic candidates have assailed her plans to pay for Medicare for All, which would create a government-run health care program that would cover everyone.
Engaging with billionaires is a wiser move for Warren than battling with such moderates as former vice president Joe Biden or South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who managed Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign.
“It is better to use them as foils,” he said of the billionaires.
But the strategy could push her further to the left, making it harder to appeal to more centrist voters in the general election.
“The more she bashes billionaires, the more she raises questions that maybe, like Sanders, she’s not really a capitalist,” said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan campaign analyst. “I think that raises problems for her and the Democratic Party over the long run.”