vision 2020

Is Tom Steyer Making a Mockery Out of the DNC?

He’s got money to burn. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Ben: Tom Steyer, the billionaire who has gone from bankrolling “impeach Trump” ads that nobody really wanted to running for president himself, is on the cusp of qualifying for the third Democratic primary debates. Following the rules set out by the Democratic National Committee, Steyer has gotten this far by pouring $10 million of his own money into persuading 130,000 people to donate as little as $1 to his campaign. Is he making a mockery of the debate system? And should we be protecting it from a rich person’s vanity campaign in the first place?

Eric: The answer to No. 1 depends on whether one believes it’s possible to make a mockery of something that is already a farce. Answer to No. 2 depends on one’s views on whether democracy should reign within parties or merely between them.

In other words, it’s hard to make a mockery of a system that has already allowed Marianne Williamson to share a primetime stage with Democratic officeholders who actually have a chance of becoming the next president. And whether parties should have the ability to keep random outside celebrities or billionaires from crashing presidential primaries is a worthwhile question; my general view is that, in a nation that doesn’t have a two-party duopoly that renders major parties de facto arms of the state, political parties should not feel obligated to hold plebiscites on their leadership. But in the U.S., it’s more complicated.

Gabriel: Agree, agree. Re: No. 1, I think it’s important to note that a lot of campaigns are doing a version of this — pouring a ton of money into ads right now to try and make the debate stage — but the public effect is less pronounced because it’s not the candidates’ own money being spent.

But Steyer would have you know that (a) he actually does think he can be president, and (b) he was about to run in January, so this is just making up for lost time.

(He put a whole team together, went to Iowa, then at the last second shocked his staff by saying he wasn’t running.)

Eric: Do you have any clear sense what happened between January and July to change Steyer’s calculus? Seems like nothing terribly surprising happened in that interval, except perhaps for the confirmation of Biden’s strength.

Gabriel: Well, his personal circumstances have changed. I think there have been family considerations. But politically, he clearly felt like there was still space for him in the race (the impeachment environmentalist?) and that — crucially — he could force his way back in. So this just brings us back to the question of whether it makes sense to have a system where one can just decide to be relevant and buy his way in.

DNC Chair Tom Perez’s answer on this general question has been pretty consistent: If you can demonstrate you can get hundreds of thousands of supporters, you deserve to be on the debate stage. Period. That’s not crazy, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see the DNC try to tighten the qualification thresholds after these debates, now that this is a real concern.

Ben: It doesn’t seem crazy to me, nor does letting Marianne Williamson have her shot in July. What does seem crazy is not getting things down to a handful of candidates quickly.

Eric: It does seem like, absent a rule change, the field could grow between September and October instead of finally, mercifully contracting.

Gabriel: To be fair, even if we’re at 12 candidates on the stage in September, that’s still a significant slimdown of the field. The problem is what happens if it gets to October and we’re looking at 15 or 18. But that seems really unlikely — campaigns will run out of money. That’s not a problem Steyer — who has promised to spend $100 million — will have.

And it’s plausible that the DNC could say that for the November debate, candidates have to, say, be at 5% in polls and have 200,000 donors. That would essentially cut the field down to five or six or seven.

Ben: I endorse that heartily.

Eric: Biden, Warren, Bernie, Harris, and Pete should be given a night to themselves, ASAP. Let the next six do an undercard.

Gabriel: Sure, I wrote as much after the last debates: It’s crazy and unfair to voters that we still haven’t seen Warren and Biden debate, or Warren and Harris, for example. But, I mean, there were still 12 candidates in the 2016 GOP race on Iowa caucus night.

Ben: Getting back to Steyer himself: Would it be better if the DNC restricted how much money you can spend from your own pocket on soliciting donations? Or is that a fairy-tale idea?

Gabriel: The problem with that is that there are a million ways around it, and there’s no one standard for how much a donor costs. So if you say “you can only spend $3 per donor solicited,” you’re essentially restricting the pool of potential donors that campaigns can target. And the last thing the DNC wants to do is say that candidates can’t reach out to low-propensity voter or donors (who cost more to reach on Facebook).

Also, if you’re going to do that, you might as well just say “we don’t want people buying their way in,” because that would be the obvious intention. But the Steyer counterargument would be obvious, and a version of an argument Michael Bloomberg used to make: I have all this money and I’m willing to use it, why wouldn’t you want me to?

But this is where we get to the very real question No. 2 that Eric pointed to above. Should the DNC just say, “Well, you know what? We don’t want any billionaires running, so … no billionaires are permitted to run.”? Hard to see a legitimate argument for why they shouldn’t at least be allowed to say that, putting the wisdom of such a decision aside for a second.(For the record, I see zero indication that anyone in the DNC building would favor such a policy.)

Ben: Especially since no billionaire is likely to win this time around, such a policy might create unnecessary headaches.

Gabriel: When we’re into the fifth round of voting at the convention in Milwaukee and the Winfrey-Kennedy III ticket emerges, I’ll remember you said that.

Eric: Probably a winning ticket, tbh.

Gabriel: Oh, definitely.

Ben: In the end, don’t Democrats still need their billionaires from time to time?

Eric: As donors, sure. As candidates … not sure why.

Gabriel: “Need” is … a word for it.

Ben: Yeah, I didn’t necessarily mean as candidates. For the record, I don’t reflexively love billionaires, I just meant they can be useful.

Eric: Think we could have won back the Illinois governorship without J.B. Pritzker.

Gabriel: I’m just stunned we got through this chat without once mentioning the multimillionaire trying to do the same exact thing as Steyer, far less successfully. (Insert John Delaney GIF here.)

Ben: Oh right, that guy.

Eric: But yeah, Ben. Generally speaking, individual billionaires aren’t an especially reactionary force in the Democratic Party. Soros and Steyer’s cash provides muscle to the party’s left flank. Corporate political spending is a different matter (businesses pretty uniformly do not want to pay their workers much higher wages, assume a greater share of the externalized costs of production, or pay higher taxes). But some individual plutocrats are liberal ideologues (and/or understand that there are billionaires in Scandinavia, and that the full implementation of the Bernie-Warren agenda would still leave their grandkids with more money than they can spend). And while I haven’t looked into empirical work on the question, it seems safe to assume that Bloomberg and Steyer’s investments played an important role in the party’s triumph in the House elections last fall.

Ben: In conclusion, stay in your lanes, mega-rich people.

Gabriel: Or buy new lanes. (But don’t.)

Ben: Haha.

Is Tom Steyer Making a Mockery Out of the DNC?