There are few spectacles more absurd or horrifying (depending on your perspective) than a group of political leaders who want to be president of the United States trooping to the lair of a billionaire to genuflect before him in hopes of winning his favor — and, of course, his money.
If you’re looking for a symbol of what presidential politics has become, particularly in the Republican Party, look no further than the festival of grovelling that will occur this weekend in Las Vegas. Alex Isenstadt reports:
Before Iowa and New Hampshire, GOP candidates are competing in the Sheldon Adelson primary, and some will travel to his posh Venetian hotel in Las Vegas this weekend in hopes of winning it. But one candidate — Marco Rubio — has emerged as the clear front-runner, according to nearly a half-dozen sources close to the multibillionaire casino mogul.
In recent weeks, Adelson, who spent $100 million on the 2012 campaign and could easily match that figure in 2016, has told friends that he views the Florida senator, whose hawkish defense views and unwavering support for Israel align with his own, as a fresh face who is “the future of the Republican Party.” He has also said that Rubio’s Cuban heritage and youth would give the party a strong opportunity to expand its brand and win the White House.
Adelson came to many people’s attention when he dropped $20 million in a vain attempt to get Newt Gingrich the GOP nomination in 2012, an effort doomed by the identity of his chosen candidate. It’s a good reminder that money is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for winning the primary. I suppose there might be some level of funding that could propel even someone as ridiculous as Gingrich to victory, but whatever it is — $200 million? $500 million? — it’s more than even someone like Adelson is going to spend in a primary, particularly when there are other billionaires out there doing the same thing.
We may be about to see an unprecedented arms race among Republican plutocrats. The Koch brothers are supposedly leaning toward Scott Walker, though they haven’t made a final decision; they’ll be holding their own audition for candidates this summer. Ted Cruz is backed by a hedge fund magnate named Robert Mercer; investment manager Foster Friess will once again keep Rick Santorum funded, as he did in 2012.
But the real question isn’t whether a candidate can find the one donor that will bring him to victory, it’s what happens when the next president takes office.
All this money — not just the volume but the way it’s being moved around — is making a mockery of our already porous campaign finance laws. One of the last restrictions on funding that the Supreme Court has left standing is the limit on direct contributions to candidates. This year, if you’re a billionaire, you can only give Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign $2,700 for the primary and $2,700 for the general election, because everyone agrees it would be inherently corrupting if you could just write him a check for $1 million or $10 million or $100 million.
But that won’t stop you. Here’s what you can do. You can go over to the Right to Rise PAC, which exists in order to make Jeb Bush president, and write it a check for that $1 million. And since Jeb is not officially a candidate, he can raise money for the PAC, and plan and shape its strategy for the election. After he declares himself a candidate he will no longer be allowed to coordinate with it, but by then the preparatory work will be done.
Which is why, in an unprecedented move, Bush has decided to outsource entire sectors of his campaign to the PAC, like advertising and ground organizing, while the official campaign will do far less. It could well be the future of presidential campaign organization. Election law expert Rick Hasen explains why this is so troubling:
In the old days (think the days of the fundraising of Bush’s brother, George W. Bush), the main way of gaining influence was by becoming a campaign bundler. Bundlers not only give the maximum few thousand dollars to the candidate’s campaign; they also get friends, relatives, and acquaintances to do the same. Now, one doesn’t have to become a bundler for the campaign to curry favor: One can simply write a check for $1 million or more to Right to Rise.
By signaling that Right to Rise is his campaign arm, Jeb Bush has broken down the wall between his super PAC and his campaign committee in the eyes of donors. Preventing coordination and preserving independence was one of the last walls that were left.
The next step will be simply handing $1 million checks to candidates. Right now that’s still illegal, but campaign finance opponents will challenge those candidate contribution limits as ineffective since (the Bush campaign will show) super PACs can serve almost the same purpose. Indeed, campaign lawyer Jim Bopp (the brains behind the Citizens United lawsuit) signaled as much this week, arguing that the way to take unaccountable money out of politics is to let individuals give whatever they want directly to candidates.
I suspect Hasen is right about this: Democrats are going to say that 2016 shows we need stronger campaign finance laws, while Republicans will say 2016 shows that the laws are toothless and irrelevant, so we might as well just remove the restrictions altogether.
The candidates themselves probably aren’t too worried about getting attacked as bought and paid for. They see the benefit they’ll get from being backed by a donor like the Kochs or Adelson on the one hand, and the bad press they’ll get from seeming like they’re in the pocket of a billionaire on the other hand, and say it’s a deal worth taking. What’s a few reporters’ questions that can easily be batted away (“I’m grateful for the support of any American who shares my vision for the future”) against all that cash?
“Dark money” — cash which is channeled through shadowy groups, obscuring where it originally came from — is extremely worrisome. But this new development is something else entirely. Sure, we’ll maintain the fiction that these PACs are “independent” and therefore there’s no corrupting influence associated with that money. But if you actually believe that at the end of a campaign in which he was showered with eight or nine figures worth of casino money, President Rubio wouldn’t be particularly open to hearing what Sheldon Adelson has to say about, say, internet gambling (which the magnate has worked hard to stamp out), I’d have to wonder whether you get to drink rainbows and ride unicorns on the fantasy planet you live on.