When Franklin D. Roosevelt was seeking his first term as president in 1932, he asked voters to judge him by the enemies he made.
Not only did he win, trouncing unpopular Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover, Roosevelt was re-elected three times, victories that show how the candidacy of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, might benefit from a war of words with billionaires from Wall Street banker Jamie Dimon to Silicon Valley titan Bill Gates.
Both men made headlines this week by criticizing Warren's campaign, which has proposed a wealth tax to fund sweeping changes, including Medicare-for-all and the elimination of most student loan debt — while eschewing rich donors.
“If you look at the back-and-forth with Elizabeth Warren’s response to Bill Gates, I think she’s kind of capitalizing on this,” said Joe Fuld, president of the Campaign Workshop, a political consultancy firm based in Washington, D.C. Criticism from billionaires is on-brand for the Democratic front-runner and might actually fuel her slow-but-steady ascent in polls.
Among the general electorate, there's a growing resentment toward the richest people and corporations, whose net worth is increasing even as a majority of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck. A January Fox News poll found broad support among voters for increasing taxes on the wealthy, with 70 percent supporting a tax hike on families earning more than $10 million annually.
Such sentiments, and Warren's attempt to harness them, have begun to rattle America's ultra-rich. After all, the strategy worked before. Roosevelt made his first run in the middle of the Great Depression, which saw joblessness climb to 25%, and enacted sweeping programs to help. During his second campaign, he told supporters that his policies had earned him the enmity of America's oligarchs.
"They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred," the former New York governor said in a speech at Madison Square Garden. "I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it, the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it, these forces met their master.
During an appearance at the New York Times’ Dealbook conference on Wednesday, Gates, the second-richest person in the world with a net worth exceeding $100 billion, said American innovation could be at “risk” if taxes get too high. He was directly addressing Warren’s wealth tax plan, which would impose a 3 percent tax on every dollar over $1 billion in net worth.
“I’ve paid over $10 billion in taxes. I’ve paid more than anyone in taxes. If I had to have paid $20 billion, it’s fine. But when you say I should pay $100 billion, then I’m starting to do a little math about what I have left,” Gates said, adding that he was “just kidding.”
Warren responded on Twitter, extending an invitation to Gates to meet and talk about how much he’d actually pay under her wealth tax proposal — “I promise it’s not $100 billion,” she wrote — an answer that could play well with both her base and other voters.
"She's smart about saying, ‘I’m happy to talk to Bill Gates,'" said Fuld, the political consultant.
During an interview with CNBC earlier this week, Dimon said Warren uses some “pretty harsh words” against billionaires and Wall Street. “Some would say that she vilifies successful people,” he added. “I don’t like vilifying anybody. I think we should applaud successful people.”
While Dimon previously said that he supports a progressive income tax structure and higher levies on the wealthy, he warned that Warren’s proposed Accountable Capitalism Act would change the “complete nature of how you run a corporation.” The act, introduced in April, would make it easier to jail executives whose companies break the law.
The proposal would impose additional oversight on Wall Street, Warren said at the time, pointing to the 2008 financial crisis when the government funneled billions into bailouts of large companies to prop up the financial system. When the accompanying economic downturn cost thousands of people their homes and unemployment surged to 10 percent, voters complained bitterly that no executives were prosecuted for their role in causing it.
But “we have to look at [how] America was founded on free enterprise. Freedom and free enterprise are interchangeable,” Dimon said. “If people have very specific things that we should do different, then we should think about doing them different.”
Warren’s spat with Dimon and Gates comes on the heels of money manager Leon Cooperman calling the 2020 hopeful's wealth tax proposal “idiocy” and saying she was “basically trying to turn people’s heads around by promising a lot of free stuff."
Warren fired back in a tweet, criticizing Cooperman for his stake in the frequently criticized student loan servicer Navient. Student loan debt in the U.S. has climbed to a record $1.6 trillion as of the end of July, and Warren backs forgiving the obligations.
“I care about an entire generation of students being crushed by student loan debt — deferring their American dream because they can’t afford it,” Warren wrote. “I’m not afraid to stand up to the wealthy and well-connected.”
Warren has also faced pushback from billionaire Mark Zuckerberg over her vow to break-up the country's biggest tech companies, including Facebook, which Zuckerberg founded in college; Google and Amazon.
Leaked audio from a Facebook question-and-answer session in July revealed Zuckerberg candidly discussing some of Warren's proposals and promising to “go to the mat” to fight her break-up plan if she wins the White House.
“If she gets elected president, then I would bet that we will have a legal challenge, and I would bet that we will win the legal challenge,” Zuckerberg said at the time. “And does that still suck for us? Yeah. I mean, I don't want to have a major lawsuit against our own government.”
Shortly after the Verge released the audio, Warren responded on Twitter.
“What would really ‘suck’ is if we don’t fix a corrupt system that lets giant companies like Facebook engage in illegal anticompetitive practices, stomp on consumer privacy rights, and repeatedly fumble their responsibility to protect our democracy,” she wrote.