WASHINGTON — It’s corruption, “pure and simple.” The government favors “the rich and powerful.” The economy “is rigged to corporations and to the very wealthiest.” It doesn’t work for working people.
As Democratic presidential candidates introduced themselves to a national audience at their first debates, some of the party’s biggest names painted a dire picture of economic and political systems with populist language that at times sounded as if it could have come from President Donald Trump.
In doing so, the candidates tapped into some of the same voter anger and frustration that Trump channeled in 2016, while arguing that the president has failed to deliver the change he promised working-class voters.
“Cynicism is pretty strong right now in America,” said Jen Mercieca, an associate professor at Texas A&M University who has written an upcoming book about Trump’s rhetoric. “Part of that cynicism comes from the fact that politicians say they’re going to help the average Americans and then they don’t."
She pointed to a Gallup Poll released this week finding that 70 percent of U.S. adults said they are proud to be American, the lowest since the polling outfit started asking the question in 2001. Only 32 percent said they were proud of the country’s political system.
Trump “took advantage of preexisting distrust and polarization and frustration” in 2016, Mercieca said.
The language of the two debates also signaled how Democrats plan to attack one of Trump’s central reelection arguments — that the economy is strong — by accusing him of overseeing a boom that is great for big businesses, the powerful, and connected, but not reaching average Americans.
John Brabender, a Republican strategist from Virginia, saw Democrats trying to appeal to the same frustrated Rust Belt voters who flipped key states to Trump in 2016 — “They felt like Hillary Clinton was the quintessential person who had gamed the system to her advantage and their disadvantage” — and to younger voters, whose defining experience has been the Great Recession.
“If you ask them what’s the biggest thing that has ever happened in their lifetime, it’s not 9/11, it’s the economic bubble that burst,” Brabender said.
Of course, Democrats and Trump propose drastically different answers for the problems they see, and ascribe them to vastly different causes.
The 24 Democratic contenders have railed against corporate greed and GOP policies that they say favor the wealthy. There have been calls for repealing the GOP tax cuts, expanding public health coverage, paying off student debt, and making public colleges more affordable if not free.
Trump bashes immigrants, the news media, and coastal elites, and on economic matters has emphasized tax cuts, deregulation, and tariffs.
In launching his reelection bid last month, he told supporters that his 2016 victory had reclaimed “government from a permanent political class that enriched itself at your expense” and insiders “who tried to take away your dignity and your destiny.”
Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) have long railed against powerful interests, and continue to lead the charge on the left wing.
“When you’ve got a government, when you’ve got an economy that does great for those with money and isn’t doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple,” Warren said in a tone-setting answer at the top of the first Democratic debate.
But even Democrats who have staked out more moderate positions have adopted some of the same language of alienation and frustration, and many have sworn off corporate donors.
“This economy is not working for working people,” said California Sen. Kamala Harris.
“This economy is not working for average Americans,” said New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who is sometimes criticized as being too close to Wall Street. “We have too much of a problem with corporate power growing.”
“We have a system that favors those who can pay for access and outcomes," said Beto O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman. “That’s how you explain an economy that is rigged to corporations and to the very wealthiest.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, whose home state of New York includes Wall Street, warned against the “difference between capitalism on the one hand and greed on the other."
In listening to the debates, Mercieca heard echoes of President Theodore Roosevelt’s attack on robber barons during the Gilded Age.
She also noted that Democrats, including former President Barack Obama, have long decried inequality, emphasized benefits for the working class, and attacked Republicans as catering to plutocrats.
But while Obama conveyed optimism, this year’s crop of Democrats increasingly reflects anger.
“When you’re in a crisis like we are now, the same old solutions aren’t good enough, and neither is the same old rhetoric,” said Rebecca Kirszner Katz, a New Yorker who founded New Deal Strategies and who works with liberal candidates. “Democrats are finally taking aim at the forces that have prevented us from achieving big structural change.”
Trump argues that he has delivered for his voters. He never misses a chance to boast about stock-market gains, new manufacturing jobs, and the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years. Recently he has promised to find ways to lower prescription-drug costs.
Democrats have countered that his policies have betrayed his rhetoric with tax cuts that largely helped the rich, an administration filled with corporate executives in top positions, and health-care proposals that would end consumer protections for millions.
“Trump is a phony,” Sanders said during the debate. “That’s how we beat Trump: We expose him for the fraud that he is."
On Wednesday, Gillibrand announced a “Trump Broken Promises” tour to begin July 11 in Pittsburgh and taking her to Ohio and Michigan, two critical Midwestern swing states that, like Pennsylvania, flipped to Trump in 2016.
Democratic strategists frequently argue that they can pull back swing voters, not by focusing on Trump’s behavior but by stressing that he has not improved working people’s lives.
“The voters who moved from Obama to Trump are winnable for Democrats in 2020, and one of the paths back is exposing Trump’s rhetoric as hollow,” said Ben LaBolt, a Democratic strategist who worked on both of Obama’s presidential campaigns.
But he warned that a new part of the Democratic coalition, converts in the suburbs who fueled the party’s gains in 2018, probably won’t warm to the idea of tearing down the system.
“If you’re for torching the system, Donald Trump has already promised to do that,” LaBolt said. “At the end of the day, when you win, you have to govern. Democrats have always believed that government can do some good.”