He’s threatened to do this silly thing before and held back. So when I read widespread media reports that Tom Steyer had changed his mind and would leap with his checkbook into a 2020 Democratic presidential field that’s so thick with candidates that he’ll have to buy a spot to land, I hoped it was a head fake or even a joke. But, no, it’s official:
My colleague Eric Levitz has already compiled all the reasons Steyer ’20 is a bad idea, in part because of the many great things the billionaire could be doing with the same money to advance the policies he favors instead of his own ambitions. What jumps out in the announcement video is the incongruity of the hedge-fund moneybags buying his way into a campaign dominated by politicians attacking moneyed interests, in order to make sure somebody attacks moneyed interests. It must be aimed at the lowest of low-information voters who have missed the entire drift of Democratic politics in the Trump era.
Perhaps there is a constituency of people longing for someone like Tom Steyer to run for president, but even he doesn’t have the money to find and motivate them. In the places where his candidacy will need to show some life, like Iowa and New Hampshire, voters have actually heard of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and others with a far deeper and more credible record of combating corporate power. These voters are also hearing similar themes from the rest of the Democratic field, including quite a few candidates who know their way around government and don’t propose a lefty version of Trump’s Rich Unbought Outsider shtick. Steyer himself recognized this in January when he decided against a 2020 run, according to the New York Times:
His announcement in Iowa that he would not run comes days after the first major Democratic candidate to join the race, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, denounced self-funding candidates on a swing through the leadoff caucus state.
An adviser to Mr. Steyer, who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations with him, said that he had been unruffled by Ms. Warren’s attacks on billionaire candidates. But, the adviser said, Mr. Steyer was impressed by Ms. Warren’s rollout as a candidate and suggested that her announcement video channeled the very themes he had been planning to campaign on.
It’s telling that Warren has also led a stampede of 2020 candidates into support for Steyer’s most recent Great Cause, the impeachment of Donald Trump. It’s another topic about which the new candidate will have nothing original to contribute.
Perhaps after running around the country for a while, Steyer will reconsider his reconsideration, and back one of those other candidates, or simply back the party he is offering to lead. At this point, I see no path to the nomination for him that makes any more sense than his claim to be uniquely equipped for the presidency. The only thing Tom Steyer has that Eric Swalwell, the Californian who withdrew from the 2020 race yesterday, does not have is deep pockets. It’s an odd qualification for a candidate so focused on ridding politics of the influence of those with deep pockets. Yes, at a time when Jeffrey Epstein (whose image briefly appears in Steyer’s video) is dominating the news, it’s refreshing to see rich people interested in doing something truly public-spirited with their money. But when the public benefit comes with the condition of making the donor the most powerful figure on the planet, it’s a very different spirit at work, and it’s one we’ve seen enough of in the last 30 months.