Days have passed since a photo of Pete Buttigieg inside a wine cave went viral. The reason isn’t mysterious. Voters rarely get such tantalizing glimpses into the high-end presidential fundraising circuit; the photo is something of a portal. It shows us Buttigieg at dinner with donors underneath a glorious crystal chandelier. To attend, people of means had to max out their donations to the Buttigieg campaign. The price of a plate, then, was $2,800, a small sum to a multimillionaire or billionaire, but out of reach for most. And what can $2,800 purchase?
The food was probably delicious, and the wine excellent. But nobody goes to dinners with candidates just to eat. The table conversation is what matters. Buttigieg, who’s since announced that future fundraisers will be open to the press, didn’t do anything markedly unusual by hosting a dinner in a Swarovski-bedecked wine cave. He was playing the game the way it’s usually played, especially when a presidential nomination is at stake. The only remarkable thing about Cavegate is the fact that it’s a controversy at all. During the last Democratic debate, Buttigieg faced fierce criticism from senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the furthest-left candidates in the race. Even Andrew Yang got in a dig, as he touted his universal-basic-income plan. Americans shouldn’t have “to go shake the money tree in the wine cave,” he said.
Regrettably, the wine-cave defenders did log on. The excuses were varied, if not especially creative. Wine caves are an agricultural necessity; the wine did not actually cost $900 a bottle, as was first rumored; not everyone at the dinner was a billionaire. “Of the roughly 50 folks in attendance, plenty were people of means, and certainly all of us who were able to go to an event like that should consider ourselves lucky,” Buttigieg donor Bill Wehrle, who attended the wine-cave dinner, wrote in an editorial for the Washington Post. “But the whole experience fell short of proving Warren’s suggestion that ‘billionaires in wine caves’ will ‘pick the next president.’”
Wehrle’s editorial at least gave the Post an opportunity to get the most amusing correction of 2019 in right under the wire. Wehrle, a former executive for Kaiser Permanente, wrote that he is not a millionaire, but he’s wealthier than he let on; his home cost over $3 million. The entire event is shaping up to be a legitimate problem for Buttigieg, even though he is personally not as wealthy as other candidates in the race. There is no polling on Cavegate itself (thank God), but one FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll does show a post-debate Buttigieg slump. Buttigieg has defended his campaign’s fundraising practices. But his spelunking may be more costly than he anticipated.
The photo of Buttigieg in the cave, at the disposal of those who could afford to be there, affirms old fears about the order of the world. Voting is a mere formality. Somewhere in a secret and elegant place, the powerful decide who gets to join America’s ruling class. This is obviously a simplification. The Cigarette Smoking Man belongs to the world of The X-Files; he isn’t going to dinner with Pete Buttigieg. At its worst, this conspiratorial logic can manifest in anti-Semitism, phenomena like the cult of QAnon, or in the belief, widespread among supporters of President Trump, that impeachment is a coup in the making.
But there’s a certain truth underlying this suspicion. America does have weak campaign-finance laws and an upper class that hoards wealth. Corporations and the wealthy do wield excessive power over the electoral process. Leaders of both parties accommodate that influence instead of challenging it, albeit to different extents, and their strategies undermine the structural integrity of democracy itself. An election ought to be a fair contest. Instead, they often resemble initiations, with a candidate anointed by unseen processes before a campaign ever formally launches. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for example, favors candidates with access to big donors. The same candidates are, by default, more likely to be of means themselves; they encounter fewer obstacles in the road to victory. And while Sanders and Warren tout their reliance on small donors — a more recent development for Warren than for Sanders — most candidates at the federal and the state level still aggressively seek out donations from people like Craig Hall and Kathryn Walt Hall, the Democratic billionaires who own the now-infamous wine cave.
Voters aren’t entirely powerless, however. A sense of inevitability bedeviled Hillary Clinton in 2016, though the candidate and her aides never seemed to realize it was a problem. In Shattered, journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes reported that Clinton campaign aides even contemplated using the slogan “Because it’s her turn.” Clinton’s embrace of Wall Street and big money — her old speeches to Goldman Sachs, the glittering dinners in the Hamptons, the celebrity supporters — did harm her in the end. Though Trump himself is no man of the people, he didn’t have to work hard to convince anyone that Clinton was aloof, out of touch with the fears and needs of everyday people. Clinton may have defeated Sanders in 2016, but three years later, the Vermont socialist is now the one with a viable shot at the presidency.
Buttigieg, meanwhile, clings to business as usual. Axios reported over the weekend that H.K. Park, a top fundraiser for Buttigieg, promised a would-be donor influence in exchange for money. “If you want to get on the campaign’s radar now before he is flooded with donations after winning Iowa and New Hampshire, you can use the link below for donations,” Park allegedly wrote in an email. Sean Savett, a spokesperson for the Buttigieg campaign, told Axios that the campaign didn’t authorize Park’s language. “But it is ridiculous,” he said, “to interpret as anything more than asking potential supporters who may be interested in Pete to join our campaign before caucusing and voting begins.” Previously, Politico reported that the Buttigieg campaign omitted the names of 20 top fundraisers from a list it released to the public. The campaign called the omission a simple mistake. But neither incident helps Buttigieg dispel the nascent perception that he is more eager to court wealthy interests than he is in listening to the poor and the working class, and that, for Pete, is a problem.
Though his fundraising practices are identical to those of Joe Biden — to say nothing of Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, two billionaires who essentially purchased their places in the primary — Buttigieg has more to lose. Nostalgia insulates Biden from outrage over his own dinners with the rich. That emotion is not available to Buttigieg, an inexperienced politician with no national profile. He’s losing, instead, not just to Biden but to Sanders and Warren, two candidates who have made redistribution and corruption the respective cornerstones of their campaigns. Buttigieg can’t afford his cave moment.