Since funding a Super PAC has become the height of good citizenship (a rough paraphrase of recent Supreme Court decisions), these political high-rollers are increasingly reveling in the limelight – and providing an intriguing window into their motivations.
Take California winery owner John Jordan, the largest Republican backer of Super PACs in 2013, who eagerly cooperated with a recent profile in National Journal. “I go out of my way to avoid meeting candidates and politicians,” Jordan bragged to the magazine. His reason is certainly not reticence, since the 42-year-old vintner comes across about as shy as a reality show star. “All too often,” he explained, “these people are so disappointing, it’s depressing.”
Why then does the 42-year-old Jordan – who began as a seven-figure donor to Karl Rove’s American Crossroads in the 2012 campaign cycle – squander so much money trying to elect candidates whom he has never met? To hear Jordan tell it (and his explanation sounds believable), it’s for the love of the game as he devotes three hours a day to devouring the Drudge Report, Real Clear Politics and the standard political tip sheets. In other words, running your own Super PAC (Jordan’s entry is called Americans for Progressive Action) is just an expensive version of fantasy baseball. As Jordan puts it, “Political campaigns are so much fun.”
Stories like this suggest that maybe it’s time to reexamine the common theories about what prompts the mega-rich in both parties to plunk down the kind of sums on political campaigns that would have otherwise bought them a Renoir or, at least, a Matisse. A donor’s purported love of good government aside, the favored rationale for this kind of political giving comes from the world of influence peddling. But this model does not appear to fit either plungers like Jordan or liberal save-the-world types like Tom Steyer.
Ever since the days when New Deal veterans like Tommy Corcoran set themselves up as Washington fixers for hire, there has been a time-tested method for getting your way with Congress and the White House. You hire the right politically connected law firm—which has already earned good will all over Washington with generous campaign donations to both parties – and you wait for the modern equivalents of Clark Clifford and Robert Strauss to work their magic. These days, you would also retain a top-drawer strategic consulting firm (heavens no, we’re not lobbyists) filled with famous alumni of the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.
That remains the best way for special interests to prevail in Washington, which is why there is no need for Goldman Sachs, Exxon or Comcast to launch their own Super PACs. Moreover, when you start making multi-million-dollar contributions to just one party or one faction, you instantly collect enemies, as the Koch brothers and George Soros have undoubtedly learned.
But politics is not really like philanthropy either. When David Koch gives $10 million to recreate the fountains in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he knows that his name will be emblazoned on the waterworks for decades. That is how the edifice complex plays out. And it explains why there are no buildings on Ivy League campuses with names like “Anonymous Donor Hall.”
Nothing, in contrast, is more perishable than a political donation. Not only is the cash expected to be spent by the end of the campaign, but it is also difficult to establish benchmarks for wise giving. In politics, no one sets up challenge grants or gets the bulk of their money back if the favored candidate drops below, say, 45 percent in the polls. Instead of the rigid accountability demanded by foundations, Super PAC donors run a significant risk of being gulled by mercenary campaign consultants.
Maybe a better way to understand the proliferation of Super PACs and the billionaires who love them is to focus on the arrogance of the rich. John Jordan spent $1.4 million last year on a two-week ad campaign on behalf of Gabriel Gomez, the Republican running in the special election to fill John Kerry’s Massachusetts Senate seat, because the vineyard owner believed that he was smarter than the GOP establishment who regarded it as a can’t-win race. Michael Bloomberg believes that if he spends enough, he can tame the fanaticism of the NRA. Ditto for Tom Steyer who appears convinced that, with the aid of $100 million in campaign ads, he can galvanize America to battle climate change.
The truth is that politics is the great leveler. Karl Rove’s operation at Crossroads was a political juggernaut until it ran into the national Democratic tide in the 2012 elections. In crusading for gun control, Bloomberg will likely be defeated by a libertarian streak deep in the American psyche that irrationally equates firearms with freedom. Steyer’s efforts to change the political climate on global warming runs up against the political interests of coal-producing states and the comforting appeal of delay and denial.
A political world dominated by billionaires is, of course, an affront to democracy. But in their arrogance, the super rich do resemble King Canute ordering the tides to recede. And that foolishness may be the only salvation in a Super PAC era.
Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.