WASHINGTON - There may be three billionaires running for president but that hasn’t stopped many Democratic candidates from railing against the ultra-wealthy, especially Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
“Coming together to create an economy, a government, an energy system that works for all of us, not just the one percent,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said at a campaign rally.
Meanwhile, Warren is proposing sweeping cultural change and ambitious plans such as her $21 trillion dollar proposal for Medicare for All.
That leaves more moderate competitors like Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar to question how she will pay for it.
In turn, Warren blasted her moderate Democratic rivals seeking the White House, accusing them of naively accepting Republican calls for unity rather than standing up to the rich while too quickly bending to the whims of their own wealthy donors.
The Massachusetts senator strongly defended her progressive vision for the nation built on using new taxes to extend benefits such as universal child care and health coverage. Warren didn't name former Vice President Joe Biden or Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, but she was clearly taking aim at them — suggesting that long-simmering tensions between the party's centrist and progressives wings are boiling over.
“Unlike some candidates for the Democratic nomination, I'm not counting on Republican politicians having an epiphany and suddenly supporting the kinds of tax increases on the rich or big-business accountability they have opposed under Democratic presidents for a generation," Warren said during a speech at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. “Unlike some candidates for the Democratic nomination, I'm not betting my agenda on the naive hope that if Democrats adopt Republican critiques of progressive policies or make vague calls for unity that somehow the wealthy and well-connected will stand down."
The cornerstone of Warren’s policy centers around a 2-cent wealth tax on those with fortunes over $50 million dollars, which she claims will pay for things like the expansion of charter schools and free college for those who qualify.
“Well, I don’t want a government that works for giant, multinational corporations. I want one that works for our family,” Warren told a cheering crowd at a campaign event.
And in order to pay for Medicare for All, Warren proposes a 6 percent tax on anyone who’s worth over a billion dollars and that has led to clear battle lines drawn between Warren and those considered billionaires who argue the senator’s plans are punitive and will dismantle their life’s work while disincentivizing others who want to get rich one day.
She pledges to use that tax money to offer universal child care and wipe out most student debt for 42 million Americans, while helping finance a “Medicare for All" plan providing government-sponsored health care nationwide.
“Elizabeth Warren is, of course, the person that Wall Street dislikes the most,” said Hal Dash, a Democratic strategist.
But Warren is not backing down. Her latest campaign ad is aimed right at the uber-wealthy.
“You built it at least, in part, using workers all of us helped pay to educate. Getting your goods to market on roads and bridges all of us helped paid the bill. We’re Americans. We want to make these investments. All we’re saying is when you make it big, pitch in two cents!” Warren said emphatically at a campaign rally.
She’s even taken a swipe at billionaire Democratic hopeful Michael Bloomberg, a former New York City mayor.
“I don’t believe that elections ought to be for sale,” Warren said in an appearance on Bloomberg.
Warren remains bunched near the top of the polls with Biden, Buttigieg and Sanders, the race's other strong progressive voice. But rather than contrasting herself with Sanders to shore up the Democratic left, she has increasingly gone after the mayor and the former vice president — as well as Bloomberg.
The division is growing as the first votes of the Democratic primary near, and there's mounting concern that no clear front-runner will emerge from the initial slate of contests.
“Nobody is perfect, and nobody is pure. And there’s no question that any Democrat running for president would be a whole lot better than Donald Trump," Warren said Thursday to applause.
She added later: “But voters will not trust a candidate who won’t make a single difficult decision that might cut down on the access and influence of wealthy donors. And voters will be right.“
In response to Warren's speech, Buttigieg senior adviser Lis Smith suggested that the senator may ultimately undermine Democratic unity.
“Sen. Warren's idea of how to defeat Donald Trump is to tell people who don’t support her that they are unwelcome in the fight and that those who disagree with her belong in the other party," Smith said.
Warren has centered her candidacy on proposing structural changes to remake the political and economic system. But some potential hurdles of doing so were on display earlier this month, when the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Wharton Budget Model — which provides nonpartisan analysis of public policy proposals — released findings showing that Warren's wealth tax will raise $2.3 trillion to $2.7 trillion over 10 years. That's as much as $1.4 trillion less than Warren’s campaign estimates.
The analysis also concluded that the new taxes would cause the economy to contract 0.9 percent to 2.1 percent by 2050 and says the new tax would reduce “private capital formation” enough to drive the U.S. economy’s average wage down 0.9 percent to 2.3 percent, even affecting households not rich enough to qualify for the tax.
Warren’s wealth tax has been among the most popular — and most scrutinized — proposals of her campaign. Although Sanders has proposed an even higher tax on top fortunes, Warren's has given her an economic populist edge and even prompted crowds at her rallies to break into chants of “2 cents!”
Responding to the analysis after her New Hampshire speech, Warren said it wasn't really based on what she wants to do, saying the authors “changed provisions and then analyzed something else.“
“I understand there are people who want to throw up a lot of dust around this because they don't really have any comeback to that central question and that is, ‘Why aren't we asking the folks at the very top to pitch in a couple of cents so that we could actually invest in opportunity and everyone else?'" she said.
Still, even Warren herself acknowledged the potential difficulty of her agenda, noting in her speech: “Will I have a magic wand to enact my full agenda? Of course not. No president does. I know I will have to compromise, but that’s not where we start.”
She said she'd exploit Senate procedures allowing some legislation to pass with a simple majority — noting that Republicans used that to pass the tax cuts championed by Trump. But pulling that off is difficult since the chamber rules would require near-universal Democratic unity.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.