Leading Democratic presidential candidates Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren are locked in a war of words over whose ties to corporate America should disqualify them from taking on Donald Trump in next year’s election.
Ms Warren has zeroed in on Mr Buttigieg’s two-year stint at McKinsey, the consulting firm, while the South Bend, Indiana mayor has pressed for the Massachusetts senator to release her tax returns for the years she worked as a legal consultant to corporate clients. The row underscores how a prestigious CV that would have once been an asset for a presidential candidate has become a vulnerability for Democrats running on a platform of tackling corporate greed and corruption in Washington.
It also comes at a time when Mr Buttigieg’s popularity in early voting states is rising and Ms Warren’s is slipping. According to an average calculated by Real Clear Politics, Mr Buttigieg leads in Iowa with 22.5 per cent, followed by Vermont senator Bernie Sanders at 19.3 per cent, former US vice-president Joe Biden at 18 per cent and Ms Warren at 16.3 per cent. In New Hampshire, where the primary will take place one week after the Iowa caucuses in February, Mr Sanders maintains the lead at 19 per cent, followed by Mr Buttigieg at 17.7 per cent, Mr Biden at 14.3 per cent and Ms Warren at 13.3 per cent.
While Mr Buttigieg positions himself as a centrist and Ms Warren appeals to left-leaning Democrats, surveys suggest some of Mr Buttigieg’s gains have come at Ms Warren’s expense. The two candidates share a Harvard pedigree — he graduated from the university in 2004, she was a professor at Harvard Law — and vie for the support of highly educated voters in particular.
“Buttigieg and Warren are competing for the same voters, which are white, highly educated liberals,” said Kenneth Baer, who worked in the Obama administration and is now chief executive of Crosscut Strategies in Washington.
“Politics is not a Harvard seminar. Things can get rough,” he added. “They are going to start attacking each other over this slice of the electorate, because that is how they are going to win primaries.”
Mr Buttigieg has sought to draw lines between himself and Ms Warren — in a televised debate in October, he accused her of avoiding a “yes or no answer” on how she would pay for her “Medicare for All” plan, which would effectively eliminate private health insurance — while Ms Warren has largely avoided calling out her opponents by name.
But Ms Warren started raising questions about Mr Buttigieg’s work for McKinsey in recent weeks, calling on him to “open up the doors” of his closed-door fundraisers with wealthy donors.
“We know that another calls the people who raise a quarter-million dollars for him his “National Investors Circle,” and he offers them regular phone calls and special access,” she said in a speech on Thursday. “When a candidate brags about how beholden he feels to a group of wealthy investors, our democracy is in serious trouble.
The senator — who has sworn off traditional big-money fundraisers and said she would not accept money from “super-pacs” if she won the Democratic nomination — also called on Mr Buttigieg to say who was on his campaign’s finance committee and identify the “bundlers” leading his fundraising efforts.
Mr Buttigieg’s senior adviser, Lis Smith, has accused the Warren campaign of being divisive. She said on Twitter that if Ms Warren “wants to have a debate about transparency, she can start by opening up the doors to the decades of tax returns she’s hiding from her work as a corporate lawyer — often defending the types of corporate bad actors she now denounces”.
Ms Warren has released 11 years’ worth of tax returns covering her time in public office, compared to Mr Buttigieg’s 12. She has not published returns from before 2008, when she had corporate clients while teaching law. But on Sunday, she published a detailed list of her clients, saying she had earned $1.9m over a 30-year period as a legal consultant.
The next day, Mr Buttigieg announced his campaign would open fundraisers to the press, and publish the names of his bundlers. On Tuesday, his campaign published a list of the 9 clients he worked with at McKinsey, including private health insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.
In an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Mr Buttigieg responded to a question about lay-offs at Blue Cross Blue Shield with a dig at Medicare for All.
He said he did not know if his consulting work had led to job losses at the insurer, but added: “What I do know is that there are some voices in the Democratic primary right now who are calling for a policy that would eliminate the job of every single American working at every single insurance company in the country.”
The mayor is running on a platform of “Medicare for All Who Want It”, which would introduce a “public option” but allow Americans to keep their private health insurance.
Charlie Cook, the non-partisan political analyst, said: “Clearly big companies are not the favoured audience within a Democratic primary.”
While he was sceptical that the candidates attacks on each other would “move a lot of points”, they could inject doubt in the minds of primary election voters.
“He is more of a moderate flavour and she is a more progressive flavour,” he said of Mr Buttigieg and Ms Warren. “But they are both going after these higher education level voters, and these are the voters who pay close attention”.
Matt Bennett, who worked on both of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns and is now at the think-tank Third Way, said the Democratic primary would come down to a question of who was best equipped to take on Donald Trump, who had obfuscated his own business interests and tax records.
“Democrats often get ourselves wrapped around the axle on issues voters couldn’t possibly care less about,” he said. “This is a process to find someone to lead the ticket and to beat Trump . . . Because ultimately what else is there?”
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