I’d like to look at that question in the context of one particular issue and how it shapes not only this race but also the entire future of the Democratic Party and the country: income inequality. Or to put it another way: What do these candidates think the fundamental problem with the U.S. economy is?
This question is particularly acute for Patrick because, although he has long been thought of as a potentially strong presidential candidate, on economic issues his profile is not exactly built to warm the hearts of the Democratic base.
Patrick has spent his career moving between government and corporate positions, including some that are likely to raise uncomfortable questions among Democratic primary voters. After running the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department under President Bill Clinton, he joined the board of Ameriquest, one of the worst offenders among the subprime mortgage lenders who helped create the Great Recession. Patrick also worked as general counsel for Coca-Cola and Texaco — yes, he was an oil company executive.
And after leaving the governor’s mansion in 2015, Patrick went to Bain Capital, the private equity firm co-founded by Mitt Romney. You may remember that in 2012, Democrats absolutely savaged Romney over Bain’s business model, which often involves buying companies, stripping them for parts and then selling off what’s left at a profit. The attack was so brutally effective that “Saturday Night Live” mocked it with a skit.
It just so happens that among Elizabeth Warren’s economic proposals is one directly targeting private equity. It would impose a new set of requirements on firms like Bain, making it somewhat more difficult for them to still make large profits when the companies they buy go belly up. I can’t say what effect her bill would have on the economy as a whole, but it tells a stark morality tale, about vulture capitalists who line their pockets while ruining the lives of middle-class Americans. It would certainly be interesting to hear her and Patrick debate this.
This highlights both the policy and rhetorical difference between candidates like Warren and Bernie Sanders on one side, and candidates like Patrick, Joe Biden, and Pete Buttigieg on the other. All say they want to address inequality and promote the interests of the middle class. On Patrick’s website, his still-vague “Vision” section talks about “growing the economy out to working people and the marginalized, not just up to the well connected.” They all say they want to build an economy that works for everyone.
But when Warren and Sanders talk about inequality, they tell a story with villains. Inequality didn’t just happen, it’s the result of certain people getting their way, people whose power must be curbed and whose wealth must be aggressively taxed. Warren has a new ad going after billionaires, one you can’t imagine someone such as Patrick or even Joe Biden airing.
That’s true even if they have some policy proposals the capitalist class will find unappealing. Biden, for instance, not only wants to raise the minimum wage but would strengthen unions and bar non-compete clauses that strip workers of power. But he also says, “I don't think 500 billionaires are the reason why we're in trouble,” adding that "I get into a lot of trouble with my party when I say that wealthy Americans are just as patriotic as poor folks."
A pessimist (or a cynic) might say that ambitious proposals like a wealth tax will never get through Congress anyway, which means that in the end a President Warren will probably end up where a President Biden would begin, with some relatively modest tax increases on the wealthy used to fund more benefits and services aimed at lower- and middle-class people. That’s an entirely plausible scenario.
But it’s also true that as a political matter, the arguments made by the more moderate candidates either devolve into something anodyne or come off sounding, if not insincere, then at least unconvincing. When Patrick says, as he did on Thursday, “We’ve had a system where we have crowded and hoarded all of the benefits of our prosperity in a very, very few. This is what trickle-down economics looks like,” it’s hard not to respond, “I’m glad you feel that way, but don’t you work for Mitt Romney’s private equity firm? Doesn’t that make you the problem?”
The most passionate candidate isn’t always the one who wins, of course. It’s entirely possible that what the public is looking for is a nice fellow whose heart is basically in the right place and who can calm things down a bit. But at this point it’s hard to see Deval Patrick’s message — whatever it turns out to be — transforming the race.