Democracy for sale – or billionaires’ folly?
It was said of Andrew Carnegie that he gave money away as quietly as a waiter falling down a steel staircase carrying a tray of tall-stemmed glasses. Not so the sotto voce superrich donors who are spending so much to keep Mitt Romney from declaring himself the winner of the Republican nomination.
With their chosen candidates out front, swinging at each other as they glad-hand from state to state, the multimillionaires and billionaires – a mere million is nowhere near enough to join this exclusive club – keep themselves out of sight, sitting around in a smoke-filled back room playing high-stakes hold ’em for the soul of the GOP. Not literally, of course, though many of them made their fortunes gambling everything on their hunches.
It is the common view, heard nightly around dinner tables of liberal-leaning citizens, that democracy is being bought and sold in front of our noses and that the Founding Fathers – most of whom, by the way, were comfortably well off and happily paid their way into politics – would be spinning in their mausoleums if they knew how the monarchy they defied has been replaced in the brave republic they founded by an aristocracy of the super-wealthy they never could have imagined.
Yet recent evidence suggests that Citizens United and related relaxations on campaign spending have done little more than allow the ultrarich to waste their money. Consider A. Jerrold Perenchio, the former CEO of the Univision TV network, who sank $2.1 million into the short-lived bid by Jon Huntsman Jr. to storm the White House. Perenchio’s losses match those of Jon Huntsman Sr., father of Jr., who gave a total of $2.2 million in 10 easy payments to bolster his son’s forlorn ambitions. Money can’t buy you love, perhaps, but in the Huntsman family it has surely bought eternal devotion.
The same sense of loss, both political and financial, could be said of Harold Simmons, the Texan chemicals and metals magnate, who poured $1.1 million into Rick Perry and his five-point – or was that four-point – plan for shrinking the federal government. Oops. But Simmons is not done. He made an each-way bet, backing not just the forgetful Perry but Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, too.
Simmons may soon find himself Gingrich’s lone big-bucks paymaster. His co-sponsor, the owner of casinos from Vegas to Macao Sheldon Adelson, has let slip he thinks Gingrich’s candidate is “at the end of his line” and will not throw good money after bad. For Adelson, who doesn’t like Santorum’s social conservatism and is irritated by being fobbed off by Romney with “I’ll take a look at it,” the $15 million he and his wife Miriam have thrown at Gingrich is chump change amounting to just 0.04 percent of his $25 billion fortune.
Gingrich, now penniless and pointless, has joined the ranks of the living dead, fueled by his grudge against Romney. Santorum, too, is in denial. Does anyone, even his wife Karen and their seven children, genuinely believe he can defy the math and become the candidate? Yet he keeps marching on thanks to the generous checks of the Wyoming mutual fund investor Foster Friess and Louisiana energy executive William Doré, who have thrown more than $3 million at him.
Friess is one of the few free-spending billionaires who didn’t check the no-publicity box, though his off-color jokes about women using an aspirin as contraception – “between their knees” – and his one-liners about Romney’s Cerberus approach to policy have hardly advanced the debate on the future of conservatism.
Ron Paul’s persistence in the face of not winning a single state is a different story. He is not in it to win the top slot, or even to wangle a place on the ticket, but to promote his Hayekian worldview. He is, perhaps, hoping to build the foundations for a presidential bid by his son Senator Rand Paul in 2016 or beyond. Paul’s angel donor, Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal – should that have been PayPaul? – has given the former Libertarian Party candidate nearly $3 million.
All of the above are like rich kids playing a game of Monopoly with real money – except that all of the above seem to have lost. But the real question for democrats, and Democrats, is what motivates the silent billionaires backing Romney? What do Julian Robertson, William Koch and John Paulson – who have each given him $1 million or more – expect if their malleable champion makes it to the Oval Office? Perhaps when Romney reboots after the Tampa convention and new images begin to appear on his Etch-a-Sketch, we will find out.
PHOTO: Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson speaks during a luncheon at Gaming Expo Asia in Macao, June 8, 2011. REUTERS/Bobby Yip