When it comes to President Trump’s economic policies, there is not much that appeals to Grady Cope, the founder of a machining and assembly company in Englewood, Colo.
He doesn’t approve of tariffs, which have disrupted his supply chains and raised costs. He is turned off by the president’s disparagement of immigrants. And while small businesses routinely thank the administration for hacking through a regulatory thicket, he said of the pre-Trump rule book, “I can’t think of one time that it affected me or slowed growth.”
“I lean more to the liberal side of things,” said Mr. Cope, who employs 47 people at his firm, Reata Engineering and Machine Works. Yet even though he supports a higher minimum wage and is open to the idea of “Medicare for all,” he is leery of two of the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“I probably won’t go as far left on issues as Sanders and Warren,” he said.
Wall Street’s disdain for the bottom-up populist campaigns of Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont has gotten a lot of attention. The candidates’ full-throated attacks on corporate greed, extreme wealth and banking excesses are backed up by ambitious plans to upend the industry’s everyday operations.
Wariness extends far beyond an elite financial fellowship, though, to many small and medium-size businesses whose executives are not reflexively Republican but worry that the ascendancy of a left-wing Democrat would create an anti-business climate. In their view, sweeping plans to remake the health care system or slash the cost of higher education will mean higher taxes for businesses and the middle class, no matter what candidates promise.
But if policy is an issue, so is tone. In campaign speeches and debates, some said, Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren portray businesses as exploiting the American economic system instead of building it, and of contributing to income inequality instead of creating wealth.
Michael Brady, the owner of two employment franchises in Jacksonville, Fla., is one of the independent business executives interviewed who feel unappreciated. “I get up before 6 o’clock every morning and work hard,” he said. “I put 200 people to work every week.”
Mr. Brady, 53, said he voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Mr. Trump in 2016. Since then, he said, some of the president’s actions and “some of his tweets” have made him cringe.
He said he could vote for a Democrat this year. But he finds several of the economic proposals from the party’s left wing off-putting, mentioning free college tuition and a nationwide $15-an-hour minimum wage.
What particularly irks Mr. Brady, though, are some of Ms. Warren’s statements about successful entrepreneurs’ not having built their businesses entirely on their own. Attacks on the country’s wealthy elite have also grated.
“When did the word millionaire or billionaire become a bad word?” he asked. “I cheer those people on because they’ve lived the American dream.”
Ms. Warren has explained for years that she, too, cheers hard-driven capitalists, but adds that as important as private enterprise is, its successes are built on governmental investments like roads, education, police officers and firefighters. And so the winners, she argues, need to share more of their haul.
To Mr. Brady, though, the comments sound like an insult. “It’s strictly the pro-business mentality that drives me to vote,” he said.
In the meantime, Mr. Trump has fueled such feelings by referring to the Democrats as “radical socialists.”
Democratic moderates warn that a leftward tilt in the party’s presidential nomination could alienate potential swing voters like Mr. Brady. Some point to Mr. Obama’s recent warning that “the average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system.”
“Even as we push the envelope and we are bold in our vision, we also have to be rooted in reality,” Mr. Obama told a group of donors in November.
Candidates like former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota have sought to dominate the political center lane. But none has matched the degree of enthusiasm and devotion that Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders have generated among supporters inspired by prospects of visionary change.
The belief that voters are yearning for another moderate alternative recently helped motivate former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York and former Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts to reverse their decisions to forgo the 2020 election.
The billionaire Mr. Bloomberg, who announced his candidacy in November, has emphasized his background as a self-made business executive. In an early advertisement, he described himself as “a middle-class kid who made good.” Mr. Patrick, a friend of Mr. Obama’s, has positioned himself as someone who wants to bring people together and looks for middle ground.
But even with the first Democratic contests weeks away, the November presidential election can seem far off.
Beri Fox, president and chief executive of Marble King in Paden City, W.Va., possibly the last American manufacturer of toy marbles, said she had not yet focused on the candidates’ overall plans, just “bits and pieces.”
Making sure American companies can compete with China is a priority for her, said Ms. Fox, who employs 28 people. She hopes that Mr. Trump’s confrontational approach on trade will work in the long run, but also feels that Mr. Biden cares deeply about domestic manufacturers. She has not decided whom to support for president.
For some, the battle for the Democratic nomination is still mostly background noise.
With so many candidates still in contention, “it just doesn’t seem worth my time to pick a heartthrob at this time,” said Rick Woldenberg, chief executive of Learning Resources in Vernon Hills, Ill., a family-owned manufacturer of educational materials and toys.
Mr. Woldenberg’s primary concern is the future of his business, which employs more than 200 people. The 2017 tax cuts engineered by Mr. Trump and his party helped generate more cash for investment, he said, but tariffs on imports have been punishing, raising the cost of materials and straining relations with customers and international vendors.
He also finds the president’s routine combativeness unsettling, not to mention his impeachment.
“I tend to favor politicians who are more moderate in their views,” Mr. Woldenberg said. “And I would not consider Trump to be especially moderate.”
Yet neither are Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, he said. Labeling them “very extreme,” he said that expensive plans like Medicare for all would depress the economy and that a wealth tax would be “catastrophic.”
The generally positive economic outlook, of course, could shift significantly in the coming year. The recent flare-up in tensions between the United States and Iran was a reminder that by the time of the election, international events could eclipse domestic ones.
At the moment, though, executives are focused on their businesses.
Tom Gimbel, the founder and chief executive of LaSalle Network, a Chicago-based employment agency, is looking for a candidate who will promote economic growth.
“Trump may be a loose cannon on international stuff, but domestically Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are loose cannons on restricting business,” Mr. Gimbel said. “Giving things away for free is a slap in the face for people who played by the rules. Where does it stop? Are we going to start paying off mortgage debt?”
He mentioned several other concerns about Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, including a wealth tax, broader eligibility for overtime pay, and pro-worker rulings that could come from a liberal National Labor Relations Board.
“We don’t need the opposite of Trump,” Mr. Gimbel said. “We don’t need an opposite of crazy. We need a moderate.”
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