2019 appears to be the year of the Dumb Politics Billionaire. Tom Steyer, one of the Democrats’ biggest outside spenders who is mercifully not running for president, has already committed to spending at least $40 million this year on an effort to impeach Donald Trump. Now he’s setting his sights and outsized spending power on pressuring elected Democrats to join that fight.
Politico reported on Thursday that he’s planning on spending to target three top Democrats: Richard Neal (MA), who was unopposed in 2018, Rep. Jerry Nadler (NY) who won 82 percent of the vote, and Rep. Elijah Cummings (MD), who won with 74 percent. What is the value of going after Democrats in districts where they’re putting up dictator numbers, you might ask?
Let’s give Steyer the benefit of the doubt for one moment. The money isn’t just going to ads—according to Politico, the “offensive includes TV and digital ad buys, paid staff in key districts and volunteers to organize canvassing.” So it seems clear that Steyer isn’t running the standard “do this or we’ll elect your opponent” TV ad campaign—it sounds like a broader campaign of pressure and persuasion, using grassroots, Real People to push these top Democrats into action on impeachment:
He simply said he will continue to place negative ad buys in districts like Neal’s and Nadler’s, informing their constituents where their representative stands on impeachment.
“We’re not saying, ‘We’re so brilliant, listen to us,’ we’re saying, ‘Listen to your constituents,’” Steyer said. “It’s not like we can just hold our breath until something happens.”
With the “virtually unlimited resources to spend in targeted districts,” as Need to Impeach’s lead strategist told Politico, that has a greater chance of working than it usually does.
But it still has almost no chance of working. The thing about running ads and pressure campaigns against elected officials who have no opponents in their own district is that they don’t have a ton to fear from their constituents. Of course, one hopes that elected officials are responsive to their constituents’ (real) concerns—but this is an abstract, national issue, not “this district is being polluted so please support environmental regulations” or “if Raytheon stops building so many bombs we’ll lose jobs here.” In other words: It’s very easy for Richard Neal and Elijah Cummings to ignore this. Unless Tom Steyer wants to just go all-out bonkers and try to run a Need to Impeach primary candidate against top Democrats, which would at least be very funny. (Per the site, he’s also apparently mulling attacks on the big dogs: Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and Jim Clyburn.)
The main problem with this entire campaign is that he’s trying to spend money to gin up a national movement that just isn’t there. You can spend money to create a grassroots campaign that looks a lot like a real movement, but just like Stevia, it’s never the same as the real thing, and you can always tell. I’m sure there are plenty of Democrats out there, including in these districts, who think Trump should be impeached, but it’s not a movement with real energy; it’s not like campaigns organized around issues that actually affect people’s lives, like gun control or healthcare. And these Democrats are not stupid—they know this very well.
But you can’t make a billionaire spend his money wisely, it seems. Yesterday, a group of Democrats unveiled a resolution calling for the most ambitious climate change plan yet, one that is not fully supported by Democratic leadership, and Steyer already has a group dedicated to climate change—NextGen Climate, which supports the Green New Deal. The infrastructure is there for him to run as many ads as he likes about how good the Green New Deal is to put pressure on the Democrats.
If Steyer is getting a bit bored of climate change, there are many other issue areas he could spend that $40 million on—like supporting single-payer, an issue the healthcare industry is sure to pour hundreds of millions, if not billions, into fighting, particularly if a Democrat wins in 2020. Or he could tackle criminal justice reform, or campaign finance reform, or changing the national anthem to the Duck Tales theme song. Almost anything would be a better use of money.
But for Steyer, this plan isn’t about the most efficient way to spend his “unlimited” resources in order to maximize justice and equality in America. That’s partly because to him, it just isn’t that much money. It’s hard for us plebs to imagine what $40 million even looks like, but that’s 2.5 percent of his net worth—like someone with $1,000 to their name spending $25. And as we’ve seen with Howard Schultz’ run for president, when you have this much money, no one will tell you you’re being an idiot. No one will say, “Howard/Tom, what the fuck are you doing, you know there are like a million better ways to spend your money?” Instead, your advisers will say, “Good idea, sir; can I have a raise?”
There are two deeply intertwined problem here: the existence of billionaires, and billionaires’ ability to spend unlimited money shaping politics. I shouldn’t have to be mad that a Democratic billionaire is spending his money on stupid shit instead of good shit, because the keys to what Democratic politicians do shouldn’t be held by those billionaires at all. It is infuriating that the path to getting anything that would address inequality—like Medicare for All or a Green New Deal—is blocked by the existence of moronic billionaires, even the ones who are theoretically the “better” ones, because it’s their deep pockets that determine what gets done.
It doesn’t have to be this way. That’s what AOC and Bernie Sanders have proved, that people-powered campaigns can compete with big donor-powered campaigns. A better way is possible, even if it seems far off at times. But I remain mad that this rich asshole is pouring his money into a trash can and smiling at us while people are dying without insulin. Please, Tom: Do some cool rich people shit like sailing or organizing a worldwide treasure hunt. Do literally anything else.