The 2020 campaign will feature, along with generous helpings of racism from President Trump, an argument about the economy. Trump will say that everything is fantastic and could not possibly be better.
Democrats will say that despite low unemployment, the economy is constructed for the wealthy and powerful, leaving the rest of us with wages growing far too slowly, insufficient benefits, and uncertainty that clouds our futures.
But how do you make that argument in a vivid way that connects policy to what people see in their communities? Here’s what Elizabeth Warren is rolling out:
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Thursday released a plan to attack some of the most controversial methods of private equity firms, the financiers who buy and sell companies for profit.
The plan from the 2020 Democratic presidential contender would take several significant steps to rein in the industry, including measures to block the private equity firms from stripping cash, real estate and other assets from the companies they take over.
Most critically, however, the plan would hold private equity firms responsible for the large debts that they use to buy companies. These debts, a hallmark of private equity investment, typically wind up as a burden to the targeted company, not the private equity firm, and have precipitated many bankruptcies.
Warren is not the only one talking about private equity. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) recently joined protesters in Philadelphia opposing the planned closing of Hahnemann University Hospital, which was recently bought by a private equity firm that now plans to sell it for parts, most especially the prime real estate on which it sits. Two thousand people will lose their jobs.
Some of the worst private equity horror stories come from retail, where familiar companies like Toys R Us are dying unnecessary deaths as the private equity industry drives forward what has come to be called the “retail apocalypse.”
The last time this was a political story and not just a business story was in 2012, when President Barack Obama used Mitt Romney’s record at the private equity firm Bain Capital to paint a picture of Romney as a corporate villain who amassed a fortune for himself, his partners and his investors at the expense of ordinary people.
The most devastating attack came in the form of an ad from the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA, in which a former factory worker tells a brutal story about what happened after Bain bought his company. (You can watch it here.)
“Out of the blue one day, we were told to build a 30-foot stage,” the worker says, recounting that a few days later, a group of people walked out on that stage and announced the plant was closing: "Mitt Romney made over $100 million by shutting down our plant and devastated our lives. Turns out that when we built that stage, it was like building my own coffin.”
At the time, the attacks on Romney were controversial in many quarters. Cory Booker, then the mayor of Newark, said, “Enough is enough. Stop attacking private equity.”
But it was an incredibly effective argument for several reasons: It reflected a truth that people had either experienced or knew about; it presented a clear morality tale in which Romney was on the wrong side; and it undercut what Romney said was his greatest qualification for the presidency, his business experience.
But Obama’s argument was confined to Romney himself. Obama wasn’t proposing policy changes to make what he was criticizing Romney for less likely to occur in the future.
Warren is the first candidate who’s doing so in a comprehensive way. At the moment, while Sanders has a number of proposals that Wall Street won’t like (a financial transaction tax, reviving the Glass-Steagall Act to separate commercial and investment banking), he hasn’t offered a specific proposal on how private equity works, other than saying private equity firms should be banned from owning hospitals.
Which brings me to an interesting Politico article, in which Ben White reports that people on Wall Street are growing a little less fearful of Warren, at least if Sanders is the alternative.
“Wall Street is very good at accommodating itself to reality and if the reality is the party is going to be super-progressive, they may not like Warren but she’s a better form of poison than Bernie,” said one former bank executive. At least she calls herself a capitalist who believes in free markets.
But her private equity proposal shows that they may have plenty of reason to fear, at least insofar as they’d like to keep the system as close as possible to what it is now. Sanders may have more hostile impulses toward Wall Street, but Warren has a granular understanding of how they work.
As Robert Kuttner of the American Prospect describes the new legislation she’s proposing, “Warren reverse-engineered the private equity industry, and blocked each of its techniques, one by one.”
And unlike some proposals on economic policy, this is one that isn’t hard to tell a compelling story about that voters will understand: closed hospitals, shuttered malls, thousands losing their jobs while a bunch of Wall Streeters laugh all the way to the Hamptons.
It worked in 2012, and there’s no reason to think it won’t work again. And if it does, the next president could actually do something about it.