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Why Trump’s Efforts to Paint Biden as a Socialist Are Not Working



WASHINGTON — President Trump delivered a familiar warning at his rally on Tuesday night, telling supporters that his opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., and his allies would turn America into a socialist state if given the chance.

“Biden has made a corrupt bargain in exchange for his party’s nomination,” Mr. Trump said. “He has handed control to the socialists and Marxists and left-wing extremists like his vice-presidential candidate.”

The lines were a riff on one of Mr. Trump’s favorite attacks on Mr. Biden — and an illustration of its limits. Despite repeated efforts on Twitter, on a debate stage and in speeches, Mr. Trump has failed to convince voters that Mr. Biden is a socialist.

In the closing days of his campaign, he has shifted to telling voters that Mr. Biden is instead a pawn of socialists and that his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris of California, is “a communist.” In an address to several civic economic clubs from the Rose Garden on Wednesday, Mr. Trump called the election “a choice between a socialist nightmare and the American dream.”

A wide range of polls, including some conducted for nonpartisan media outlets and for conservative and liberal interest groups, shows that Mr. Trump has so far been unsuccessful in lashing Mr. Biden to policy proposals like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and a federal tax on the net worth of high-wealth Americans, all of which Democratic voters and leaders have increasingly embraced in recent years, but which Mr. Biden has stopped short of adopting in his platform.

Evidence also suggests the socialist label does not necessarily carry as much negative weight as Mr. Trump assumed. When pollsters ask Mr. Biden’s critics to name their concerns about him, “socialism” ranks low on the list.

“It’s a word that people bring up more now. It doesn’t mean that it has an impact,” said Margie Omero, a principal at the Democratic polling firm GBAO, which has polled for progressive groups this year but is not working for Mr. Biden’s campaign. “If Trump’s attacks worked, he would be doing better. But he’s not.”

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Still, Mr. Trump and his campaign appear to see the issue as a potential winner, particularly among Latino voters who came to the United States from Latin American countries that were governed by socialist or communist rulers. Mr. Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. led a “Fighters Against Socialism” bus tour in Florida last weekend.

Mr. Biden has continued to rebut the attacks on the campaign trail, including in Florida. “There’s not one single syllable that I’ve ever said that could lead you to believe that I was a socialist or a communist,” Mr. Biden said in a recent campaign stop there.

Pollsters and analysts across the political spectrum say there are several reasons Mr. Trump’s attacks have failed to dent Mr. Biden’s popularity, which has grown among voters in recent months in spite of the “socialism” barrage. Some are about Mr. Biden: Democrats, in particular, say he has built a longtime brand as a moderate, bolstered by his refusal to endorse many of the most liberal economic policy plans of his Democratic rivals in the primaries.

ImageMr. Trump prefers to make all political attacks personal.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Some are about Mr. Trump, who even some conservatives say has been unfocused in his attacks and poorly positioned to define Mr. Biden on policy terms — because of Mr. Trump’s history of making his political attacks personal.

Some of it appears to also be about the “socialist” policies themselves. Despite months of attempts by the Trump administration, Republican lawmakers and conservative advocacy groups to forecast a descent into a Stalin-like regime of stringent government controls on business and limits on personal freedom if Democrats win, many of the plans favored by the most liberal wing of Democratic leaders remain popular with wide groups of voters, polling shows.

A new poll for The New York Times by the online research firm SurveyMonkey reveals the durability of many of those proposals in the face of repeated criticism from the right. Nearly three in five respondents say they support “a national health plan, sometimes called Medicare for All, in which all Americans would get their insurance from a single government plan.” That level of support is essentially unchanged from polling the firm conducted in July 2019, and it includes backing from more than two-thirds of independent voters.

A slightly higher share of respondents supports the government providing free tuition to any American who attends a two- or four-year college or university, including more than 7 in 10 independent voters, the poll shows.

Support for those programs appears to grow from a desire by many voters for the government to move more aggressively to curb America’s economic inequalities.Three-fifths of Americans support efforts by the government to reduce the economic gap between wealthy and less well-off Americans. Just under three in five support efforts to reduce the gap between Black and white Americans.

A supermajority — two-thirds of respondents, including a solid majority of Republicans — supports a 2 percent tax on households whose total net worth, including stocks and real estate, exceeds $50 million. Support for such a proposal, which was a plank in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s bid for the Democratic nomination, has increased from where it was a year ago.

“Taxes on the rich is an objectively popular policy,” said Sean McElwee, executive director of Data for Progress, a progressive think tank that has polled extensively on support for liberal policy plans. “Over the long term, the wind is in the sails of progressives, in terms of demand from the public.”

Mr. Trump and his party have tried to sow concern about socialism for several years. In the fall of 2018, as midterm elections approached, Mr. Trump’s White House Council of Economic Advisers produced a 72-page report warning of the dangers of socialist policies to the American economy. The White House promoted it in a news release with the headline, “Congressional Democrats Want to Take Money From Hardworking Americans to Fund Failed Socialist Policies.”

In the abstract, the messaging would appear to fit with Americans’ views about economic policy. Polls show a significant majority of Americans approve of “capitalism” and disapprove of “socialism.” But there are movements toward “socialism” in subgroups of the country. Majorities of young voters, and Democrats overall, have a favorable view of the concept.

Some of the split comes from disagreements over how to define the term. Americans who favor socialism tend to associate it with Scandinavian countries like Finland or Denmark, whose economic and social welfare systems are more commonly referred to as the “Nordic model,” the Pew Research Center has found. Its opponents tend to associate it with Venezuela.

That range of definitions has allowed Republicans to lump a growing number of policies favored by liberal groups under the “socialism” banner. In a recent attack, Mr. Trump’s first example of Ms. Harris’s so-called “communist” views was her position on immigration policy, accusing her of wanting to “open up the borders” of the United States.

“In my district, I hear a lot of fear about the dramatic turn the Democratic Party has taken toward socialism,” Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, said in an interview. “My constituents are fearful when they see proposals to defund the police, abolish our immigration and customs enforcement, when there is burning and looting in cities, concerns over the Green New Deal.”

Those attacks have not stuck to Mr. Biden. The American Action Forum, a conservative think tank led by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former head of the Congressional Budget Office and top policy adviser on the 2008 presidential campaign of Senator John McCain, has conducted polls of swing-state voters in recent weeks. In Ohio, the group asked voters why they had concerns over Mr. Biden. Only 4 percent cited “socialist” — compared to nearly a quarter who cited concerns over Mr. Biden’s “do-nothing” record or his mental fitness.

Mr. Holtz-Eakin said Mr. Trump had not been an effective messenger for the socialist charges. “One of the striking features of the Trump campaigning and governing style is he makes everything personal. There are no abstract policy paradigms — it’s personal,” Mr. Holtz-Eakin said. “So that’s how people responded. That’s how people evaluate things. They’re evaluating Biden personally.”

Democrats, including the Biden campaign, say the attacks do not work against Mr. Biden because he has built a reputation with voters as a more moderate Democrat, though his campaign’s platform proposes boosting taxes on the rich and corporations and spending increases that far exceeds the scope of previous Democratic nominees for president.

Supporters say that brand has allowed Mr. Biden to parry attacks by Mr. Trump and others that seek to tie him to his contemporaries who embrace the socialist label, like his one-time rival for the Democratic nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

“The fact of the matter is I beat Bernie Sanders,” Mr. Biden said at the debate, when Mr. Trump was pressing him on support for “socialized medicine.”

Data for Progress polling from this spring found Americans placed Mr. Biden near the middle of an ideological spectrum that ranged from “pure capitalism” to “pure socialism,” while they placed Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders farther to the left.

“Voters kind of know what a socialist is and what a socialist isn’t,” said John Anzalone, a partner at ALG Research, who is polling for Mr. Biden’s campaign this year. “They’re comfortable with Joe Biden, and they’ve known him for a long time, and they know he’s not a socialist.”

Ben Casselman contributed reporting.


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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.



The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.


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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.



The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.


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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.



As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.


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