What drives a man or a woman to spend millions of dollars — even tens of millions — of his or her own money to get a job that would place the words senator, representative, governor, or mayor in front of his or her name? For most of us unwashed heathens, the multiple millions of their own money these financial elites spend on their political campaigns represent seemingly staggering amounts.
But viewed in the rarified context of the very wealthy, the amounts are petty cash.
Whitman has “publicly floated the notion of a record-shattering $150-million campaign budget” — but even if she financed $100 million of that herself, that still would only be 7.7 percent of her billion-dollar-plus wallet.
She wants to be governor of what used to be one of the 10 largest economies in the world. But she takes a back seat to newly re-elected New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in spending your own money to be somebody big. No one in American history has spent so much of his own money to win an election.
Bloomberg has now spent $261 million to become and remain the mayor of the Big Apple. That works out to $174 per vote this year, $85 in 2005, and $74 in 2001, according to New York Times reporter Michael Barbaro.
Egads — more than a quarter of a billion dollars. But even that amount of political spending represents only 1.63 percent of Bloomberg’s $16 billion fortune. But he had to overturn New York City’s term limits law to win that third term. Ironically, this year fewer people voted for him — 557,059 — than voted to approve term limits in 1996— 586,890. In an election in which he had been expected to coast easily to his third term because of his extravagant spending and the perceived weakness of his opponent, he won by only 4 percentage points.
Bloomberg had argued that New York City needed his — and only his — expertise in coping with the crisis that enveloped the global economy and hurt the city. Yes, he does have a credible reputation as mayoral manager. But to argue that a law must be changed — a law he supported — to allow him to continue in office as the only suitable mayor during an economic downturn is arrogant.
And Village Voice writer Tom Robbins reported that, based on a book by former NYTer Joyce Purnick, “many months before economic disaster struck in September 2008 — the crisis that Bloomberg said prompted his reversal on term limits — the mayor was already pondering the move.” More arrogance.
Size — as measured by wealth — matters in politics. For example, the total wealth of the 50 richest members of Congress is nearly $1.3 billion, an average of about $25 million each. Sen. John Kerry tops the list at $167 million.
But compared with the personal finances of mega-rich political and corporate elites such as Bloomberg and Whitman, Kerry’s ability to self-finance an election pales. This trend has been apparent for nearly 20 years, particularly in the land of 90210.
California, it seems, breeds really rich people who want to buy a political title. One of Whitman’s opponents — state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner — says Whitman’s trying to buy her way into Sacramento. Yet Poizner’s no piker. He “sold a high-technology company for $1 billion in 2000, and plunged $12 million of his fortune into his 2006 election as insurance commissioner.”
Internet entrepreneur, eBay founding member, and venture capitalist Steve Westly spent $35 million of his own $200-million-plus wealth before losing the gubernatorial primary election in 2006. Former Marriott and Northwest Airlines exec Al Checchi burned through $40 million of his $700 million nest egg in his 1998 race, also losing in the primary.
And who can forget Michael Huffington, who spent $28 million of his own money and $100 million overall in losing to Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 1994.
Wealth, combined with time served in office, leads to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. Liberals would argue he’s been one of the most effective senators in American history (although credible conservatives might disagree). Yet he spent little of his own fortune to stay in office, at least since 1998. Kennedy gave only $1.35 million of his own money to his campaigns, compared with $28 million in individual contributions and $2.6 million in PAC money, according to Federal Election Commission records aggregated by the Center for Responsive Politics. But Kennedy was far from a billionaire. His last Senate disclosure estimated his net worth between $43 million and $163 million.
Money has always spoken loudly in politics. But the tens of millions available to billionaires to spend on their own campaigns is deafening.
Billionaires have always spent plenty of money on politics. Since 1978, one aggregation of data says, 82 billionaires have donated almost $62 million to Republican and Democratic candidates.
Some of these wealthy men (only seven billionaire donors were women) would argue it’s a merely a cost of doing business. Others might argue that campaign contributions to worthy candidates might foster social change (according to their definitions, of course). Still others might admit that they donate large sums simply because they can. The last is called really hefty “political throw-weight.”
But the political largesse of these 82 billionaires is miniscule compared with Bloomberg’s $261 million and Whitman’s $19 million. Her spending has been just since January — and the election is still a year away. Whitman’s spending, since she has no political profile and has rarely voted, has only one goal — name recognition. She can afford to spend $60 million, $80 million, even $100 million to have her name on the tongue of every registered California voter.
I have argued (here and here) for a radical overhaul of campaign financing. I have said that Congress should appropriate sufficient monies to adequately pay for every federal and statewide election in America. If candidates or incumbents took the public money, then they could not take a dime from any other source. (Forget the money-as-free-speech argument. The candidate makes the choice, not the donor.)
But is that argument for massive public financing feasible any more? When a billionaire 16 times over spends $261 million be merely the mayor of a city, how could Congress expect taxpayers to cover that stratospheric cost, let alone statewide and federal races?
The arrogance of Bloomberg and Whitman — I can outspend anyone, and thereby buy the political office I want — fosters another dramatic and saddening change in how America elects its leaders. As Bloomberg and Whitman have discovered, they no longer need to press the flesh and make nice to such commoners as mere multimillionaires to raise the money to run. (There are other consequences, too, as Doc Slammy will explain in his “Democracy & Elitism” series beginning today.)
America has plenty of billionaires. The Forbes 400‘s collective net worth is $1.27 trillion. Many are shrewd, capable, intelligent people. Others were merely lucky, married well, or inherited wealth. And wealth by itself does not render any citizen ineligible for public office. (Or poverty, for that matter.)
But what massive wealth offers is literally the ability to avoid the voters. Yes, all candidates face the electorate at the ballot box. But wealth affords the ability to artfully mediate or remanufacture the narrative of one’s self, one’s policies or positions, one’s history and biography. Handshakes and baby-kissing at the county fair are no longer a mandatory ritual for a really rich candidate. The wealthy can manipulate elections through the legal means of self-financing a campaign. They can hire the best consultants (and Bloomberg rewards his consultants with $100,000 bonuses) and produce the most effective ads. And they can spend money on polling to parse the electorate for targeted emails and direct mail messages.
Most important, they need not depend on the Republican and Democratic national parties for financing. They need not kiss anyone’s ass.
These are the major leagues that professional egotists Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck wish to inhabit. Despite their large incomes from various media, they’re still in the minors.
But Rush Limbaugh? He’s at or near the billion-dollar mark, thanks to a first eight-year contract for $265 million and a second for $400 million (and the rumored $100 million bonus).
Limbaugh could self-finance a Senate seat from Florida — or any state he chooses to move to and establish residency.
Frankly, I’d rather have Salma Hayek move to New York state, where I live, and run for the Senate. After all, she married well. With a net worth of $7 billion, she could easily buy that seat. Even Caroline Kennedy, with a net worth estimated between $100 million and $400 million, couldn’t pony up enough.
Welcome to the well-funded New American Political Oligarchy — a Bloomberg-Whitman production.