Politics & Policy

Will Tom Steyer Trump the Democrats?

Tom Steyer, a prominent Democratic fundraiser, holds a news conference to announce plans for his political future, in Washington, January 8, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
He wouldn’t be the first billionaire to run roughshod over a party establishment with the help of the grass roots.

Like most Republicans, the overwhelming majority of Democrats were taken completely by surprise by the rise of Donald Trump. Yet while they continue to rail at the man who seized control of the GOP from its establishment and improbably wound up being elected president, some leading Democrats are beginning to realize they have their own billionaire problem.

Tom Steyer may fit it in better with Democratic elites and officeholders than President Trump ever did with Republicans. But, as the New York Times reported on Tuesday, Steyer’s insistence on funding an ad campaign pushing impeachment is angering party leaders who think his efforts could be sabotaging their chances of taking back Congress in the 2018 midterms. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and some congressional hopefuls in competitive districts believe his impeachment ads running on cable news channels are both premature and a distraction from their more measured criticisms of Trump and the Republicans.

They’re right that most Americans think that the impeachment talk is wrong. In the absence of clear, provable crimes or at least evidence of actual collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians (evidence that is unlikely to exist), seeking Trump’s removal this early in his tenure strikes independents and Republicans as nothing more than sore-loserdom from the Democrats.

Much like Trump in 2015, Steyer isn’t listening to the officeholders, party fundraisers, or pundits. He’s listening to the Democratic grass roots. That’s why Pelosi and other Democratic candidates won’t be able to stop him from keeping impeachment at the top of the party agenda in the run-up to November. Just as important, it could make Steyer one of the most important and dangerous people in American politics in 2018 and 2020.

Democratic critics of Steyer’s efforts are right that barring some stunning and incriminating revelations from Robert Mueller’s probe, the chances of removing Trump from office are virtually nonexistent. Impeachment resolutions presented in Congress in the current term are mere symbolic gestures that have no chance in a Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Indeed, the most recent such vote received support from only 61 out of 193 Democrats. Even if Democrats win the House in November and muster a majority for impeachment in 2019, conviction in the Senate trial that would follow is a fantasy. Conviction requires a two-thirds vote, and the idea that there wouldn’t be at least 34 Republicans who would stand by Trump is preposterous.

The impact of Steyer’s campaign, however, can’t be measured solely by whether his mudslinging at Trump and the Republicans succeeds in putting Mike Pence in the Oval Office. The real importance of his efforts is that it is feeding off and fueling the rage of the Democratic base at the Trump presidency. The “resistance” partisans prefer Steyer’s approach to that of the congressional leaders who, in their view, meekly surrendered to the Republicans after a three-day government shutdown.

Anyone who ventured out into the streets at one of the many anti-Trump rallies this past weekend should be able to understand that Steyer is more in touch with the people Democrats need to turn out this fall than Pelosi or Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is. Pelosi and Schumer dismiss the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing that 70 percent of Democrats back impeachment, while Steyer is giving the base what it wants.

Democratic officials should recall what happened to Republicans during the last election cycle when they mocked the one candidate who grasped the anger of the conservative base.

Many of the signs seen at these rallies were as absurd as the vulgar, pink hats many of the participants wore. But no one should underestimate the depth of the anger the liberal base feels. Like the tea-partiers whose frustration with Washington politics and anger about President Obama’s policies gave the Republicans a landslide midterm victory in 2014 and who then helped Trump win an upset 30-state Electoral College majority two years later, the Left’s marchers aren’t interested in making deals with congressional Republicans or the administration. They want to fight Trump — and Steyer seems to be the only one listening to them.

This means that rather than merely fund Democratic voter-turnout efforts, as the former hedge-fund manager has pledged to do, Steyer is also building a movement that could determine the course of the party no matter what happens in 2018. The 4 million email addresses he collected during the course of his impeachment campaign will be useful as he pressures Democratic candidates to back his ideas. But it also raises the possibility that, like another billionaire, he could take matters into his own hands in 2020 and bypass the growing pool of Democratic presidential wannabes.

Steyer has so far stayed out of electoral politics despite being challenged to enter the arena by Democrats who don’t like his taking potshots from the sidelines. But he’s the star of those impeachment ads that liberal voters like, so it would be a mistake to dismiss the possibility that he’ll run for office. He could decide that Democrats are ready to back their own outsider rather than one of the senators who thinks he or she is the next Barack Obama. As the leading advocate of the cause that most delights the Democratic base — impeachment — Steyer’s influence is likely to grow in the coming months and years. The billionaire’s chances of becoming a presidential contender have less to do with his less-than-dynamic personality than with an ability to tap into the same anti-establishment fervor that propelled septuagenarian socialist Bernie Sanders to the front of the pack 2016.

That’s why those Democratic officials expressing understandable annoyance at Steyer’s impeachment obsession should recall what happened to Republicans during the last election cycle when they mocked the one candidate who grasped the anger of the conservative base, while party elites mocked that man as unqualified and unpresidential. They should understand that the support Steyer is generating, along with the impact of the anti-Trump marches and the shutdown surrender, mean that the Democrats’ billionaire problem isn’t going away.


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