The Slatest

Business Appears to Be a Dirty, Dirty Word in the Democratic Primary

Howard Schultz, Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer.
Howard Schultz, Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Miguel Medina/Getty Images, Jeff Spicer/Getty Images, Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

On Wednesday, billionaire California investor Tom Steyer announced that he’s decided against running for the Democratic presidential nomination. (He’ll instead continue his current project of funding aggressive, impeachment-oriented activism.) CNN’s Harry Enten subsequently noted that in a primary environment in which Democrats view a number of potential nominees very favorably, Steyer—and other businessmen who were/are considering running—are among the few who poll poorly. (Andrew Yang is an entrepreneur/venture capital guy; Howard Schultz was the CEO of Starbucks.)

Last week, CNBC ran a piece reporting that New York senator and maybe–2020 candidate Kirsten Gillibrand had reached out to potential presidential-campaign donors on Wall Street. The piece was immediately circulated by prominent leftists on Twitter—and was perceived as so potentially dangerous by Gillibrand that she responded directly to one of those critics with a list of her tough-on-finance bona fides. As New York’s Eric Levitz notes, Gillibrand and other potential 2020 Dem candidates who’ve gotten big finance-industry donations in the past have spent the past two years endorsing as many ambitious, leftist policy ideas as possible in what seem like attempts to distance themselves from the more big business–friendly parts of their voting records. Gillibrand, who was once described in Politico as a “go-to advocate for the financial services industry,” has gotten behind Bernie Sanders’ proposal to tax all securities transactions. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker famously took the pharmaceutical lobby’s side on a bill involving prescription-drug importation; he now supports a single-payer health care bill.

On Thursday, FiveThirtyEight data-man Nate Silver introduced his list of the five key constituencies that he thinks 2020 primary candidates will have to appeal to, based on recent Democratic trends and voting patterns; the piece doesn’t mention donors or business at all, but the word socialist appears twice times and socialism once.* Democratic candidates are behaving as if you can no longer win the party’s nomination by calling for the government to work “in partnership with business,” as Bill Clinton did in 1992, or while raising a record amount of money from “securities and investment” donors, as Barack Obama did in 2008. (Beto O’Rourke may, however, try to see if you can still win the nomination if your spouse is loaded.)

Among the potential explanations for this:

• It might not be a good idea to convey to Democratic primary voters that you have a lot in common with Donald Trump, who campaigned as a “businessman” and has supported legislation that prioritizes the interests of corporations and wealthy individuals.

• Politics is a herd-mentality game in which participants are constantly overreacting to the last thing that happened, and the last Democrat who lost a presidential election got hammered for giving paid speeches to Goldman Sachs .

• The financial-services industry ruined the economy in 2008 and has in general been hoarding an increasingly appalling and unsustainable amount of the nation’s wealth for the past 30 to 40 years, convincing an increasingly large share of avocado-addled millennials that the collective ownership of the means of production is the inevitable historical result of capitalism’s flaws.

Of course, there are still many influential Democrats who work for banks, venture capital funds, and consulting firms, and you still need a lot of money to run a presidential campaign—which is to say it still seems possible that the Democratic primary will be won by someone who projects a populist vibe on TV but promises donors behind the scenes that they won’t raise the capital gains tax or expropriate all of society’s consolidated wealth for distribution to the proletariat. In other words, I’m bullish on Andrew Cuomo!

Correction, Jan. 10: This sentence originally misstated the number of times the words socialist and socialism appeared in Silver’s piece.