Billionaire liberal activist Tom Steyer has privately told friends and associates in recent days that he plans to enter the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, according to two Democrats familiar with the discussions who were not authorized to speak publicly.
While Steyer announced in January that he would not seek the White House, he has grown dissatisfied with the Democrats’ 2020 field and is now eager to jump into the contest, the people said, despite some of his confidants and friends warning him about the challenges and political cost of a bid.
Regular readers will recall my long-standing opposition to businessman-politicians in general, and super-rich guys who want to be president in particular. For every rare example of a businessman who actually put his private-sector skills to good use in governing (e.g., former New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg), there are a dozen others who either failed at their absurdly well-funded campaigns or got elected and realized that they had no idea what they were doing.
Few have ever beclowned themselves quite as much as former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz, who ran what may have been the worst sort-of-campaign in memory. Schultz has mercifully suspended his effort to become president after back surgery sidelined him; we wish him the best and encourage him to take plenty of time recovering.
But Tom Steyer is no Howard Schultz. Though Steyer had flirted with a presidential run before, his involvement in politics as a liberal super-donor suggested that he had the good sense not to give in to the temptation to believe that what America really needed was him, and nothing more.
I say that because Steyer did not bow to the temptation that many a billionaire did before him — which is to decide they want to get involved in politics, then throw a whole bunch of money at media consultants who waste it on useless TV ads and their own hefty commissions. Instead, he put most of his focus on grass-roots organizing, spending more than $230 million since 2014 to support Democrats.
While Steyer has gotten most attention for his efforts to get President Trump impeached, between the organization he set up to do that and a partner organization called NextGen America, he has hired hundreds of organizers to do the difficult and long-term work necessary to build support for liberal candidates from the ground up.
In other words, Steyer seems to understand what really matters in campaigns, and was committed to doing a lot more than just writing a check every couple of years. So why does he want to run for president?
Think about it this way: If you look across the field of Democratic contenders, you could say, “Wow, there are a lot of interesting, smart, qualified people running. You’ve got a former vice president, senators, governors, House members, mayors — all people who have more experience in elected office than I do. This is very good for the party and will likely produce a nominee who has proven themselves a worthy foe for Trump.”
Or you could look at the field and say, “What a mess. What the American people are yearning for is obviously me.”
I don’t want to pre-judge Steyer’s candidacy, but any Democrat who wants to be president has to convince the primary electorate of two things: First, that he or she has a plan to beat Trump. Second, that he or she has a plan for governing. The latter, in turn, includes two things: What the candidates want to do with the presidency, and how they’ll get it done.
Perhaps Steyer has all that worked out, and once he starts trudging through living rooms in Iowa he’ll show himself to be so compelling that voters will flock to him. But I’m skeptical.
What is it that Steyer could offer, apart from a lot of money? He’s been active on climate change, but Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has centered his campaign on that issue, and others have demonstrated their commitment to it, as well. There aren’t any ideological gaps that need to be filled, since the field covers pretty much all points on the Democratic spectrum. There are candidates with many types of experience, candidates with lots of charisma, and candidates of different genders, races and ethnicities. What exactly is this field missing?
I don’t know the answer, though I assume Steyer will explain it if he decides to run. But let me offer a plea on behalf of all voters: Please don’t tell us that with your business sense and can-do American spirit you’ll get Washington working by applying the common sense that all those politicians are lacking. We certainly don’t need to hear that drivel again.