As long as the United States shuns public financing of our presidential elections, there will be billionaires using the advantages of their wealth and connections to outspend their rivals — chiefly in the party primaries — to try to win for themselves the plum of the U.S. presidency.
Our national leaders — not all, but many — have long been wealthy and privileged: patrician landowners like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, heirs “to the manor born” like Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, men of humbler origins who married into wealth, like Andrew Jackson and Lyndon Johnson, and some who attained fortunes through their own industry and wit, like international mining engineer and investor Herbert Hoover.
Now, though, in an age when the upper boundaries of wealth have disappeared into the stratosphere, we have our first multi-billionaire president, Donald Trump (allegedly worth $3.1 billion), and it’s conceivable he’ll be followed by others, as Tom Steyer ($1.6 billion) and Michael Bloomberg ($54.6 billion) have tossed their checkbooks into the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. (Assessments of their wealth vary; these are representative estimates.)
A pattern can be seen. Whether it’s Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate in 2012, Trump, Bloomberg, or Steyer, people who have achieved enormous status, wealth and recognition begin believing that no one is better suited to run the country than they. Bankrolling their own campaigns gives them enormous advantages over candidates who have worked in the salt mines of public office and must fundraise from the hoi polloi.
When Bloomberg announced his entry into the Democratic primary on Nov. 24, people who had been campaigning brutally hard for months, visiting diners and factories and Kiwanis clubs in Iowa and New Hampshire, shaking hands and posing for selfies, explaining their policy positions in living rooms and town halls, while setting time aside for fundraising and debating each other on national TV, were appalled and affronted.
This was especially true for candidates Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, whose campaigns have focused on curtailing the inordinate power of the wealthy. Sanders accused Bloomberg of “trying to buy [the] election,” as Bloomberg made up for lost time by spending some $35 million on TV advertising. Warren, who proposes a new 2% tax on income above $50 million, suggested that Bloomberg had “figured out [that] it would be a lot cheaper to spend a few hundred mil just buying the presidency instead of paying that 2% wealth tax.”
Bloomberg rebuffed the criticism with a squirm-inducing charge that “They had a chance to go out and make a lot of money.” Self-financing, he said, meant he’d have no obligations to special interests if he were elected. (A better remedy for that problem would be public financing).
But, it turns out that billionaires aren’t all cut from the same cloth. Unlike Trump, Bloomberg has done other things in life than enrich himself. He served in public office and faced the voters as New York City’s mayor from 2002 to 2013. He made mistakes, the most egregious being to promote a “stop-and-frisk” policing policy that, in practice, was a brutal form of harassment that targeted black and Latino men. (He has acknowledged the harm and apologized.)
And as mayor and private citizen, he has implemented policies and put his money where his mouth is on touchstone issues for Democrats and progressives, such as gun control, reproductive freedom for women, health care and climate change.
In the campaign, Sanders, Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker and other candidates have addressed these issues, too, some would say more forcefully than Bloomberg. But Bloomberg stepped into the race because he grew doubtful that any of them would attract a large enough coalition of voters to defeat Trump, which he considers an emergency.
Here’s something Bloomberg could do to demonstrate the integrity of his purpose. He’s already financing his own campaign; let him, to the extent allowed by law, finance the campaigns of his Democratic rivals, too, and get others in his privileged cohort to do the same (because the individual contribution limits are small: $2,800 per election for candidates). The intent would be to keep diverse voices in the party, rather than drowning them out, and thereby retain the interest of the diverse voter blocs the Democrats will need in 2020. It would be to display and support a party truly interested in ideas and engagement, expanding its possibilities rather than constricting them.
Instead of “buying the presidency,” buy a broader, better experience for American voters. Then, if Bloomberg triumphed in such a setting, he would be more deserving of it.
Come on, Mike. Give it a try. What have you got to lose?