The Democratic National Committee has gotten considerable grief for how it has managed and organized the party’s presidential candidate debates this cycle; some of that criticism is deserved, and some is undeserved. Many of the less compelling complaints come from candidates and their supporters who object to having any participation threshold at all. They argue that somehow declaring as a candidate and filing the right papers entitles a candidate to appear on prime-time national television — irrespective of whether that candidate has any measurable level of support in the Democratic electorate.
During this cycle, 26 Democrats of varying prominence have declared bids. There is no good debate format to spotlight 26 individual candidates. The DNC was generous by allowing 20 candidates to participate in the first two two-night debates. They’ve got to set up some threshold, and polling support and total number of donors seem as fair as any.
Having said that, when billionaire Tom Steyer is up on the debate stage tonight and several serious-minded senators and governors are not, viewers can fairly ask what the heck is going on. Other Democratic candidates have explicitly accused Steyer of buying his way onto the debate stage. Per the Sacramento Bee: “In an email to supporters, former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke said Steyer has ‘succeeded in buying his way up there.’ New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker wrote to supporters in a fundraising email that Steyer’s ‘ability to spend millions of his personal wealth has helped him gain in the polls like no one else in this race.’”
Steyer has spent $20 million on television ads — boosting his name ID and poll support above that oh-so-high 2 percent threshold — and he’s collected donations from more than 165,000 individuals.
Tonight, many Americans will get their first look at Tom Steyer, and while there’s always the chance he surprises us, the odds are good that by the end of the night, viewers at home will wonder if he won his spot on the debate stage in some sort of auction or perhaps through the Make-a-Wish Foundation. If Tom Steyer did not exist, cynical conservatives would have to invent him as the embodiment of hilariously self-absorbed, hypocritical elitists who believe in wildly impractical happy-talk theories and who have only the vaguest notion of what the U.S. Constitution says.
Steyer is a billionaire hedge-fund manager who told the New York Times that he doesn’t think of himself as rich. At his hedge fund, Steyer helped “wealthy investors move their money through an offshore company to help shield their gains from U.S. taxes.” Back in 2005, he invested $34 million in Corrections Corporation of America, “which runs migrant detention centers on the U.S.-Mexico border for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.” Steyer says he regrets that past investment.
He’s an ardent environmentalist and climate-change activist who made part of his fortune in coal development projects. He has spent tens of millions of dollars on political ads because he wants to “get corporate money out of politics.” It’s unclear if he has other controversial investments, because he “declined to go into detail about significant segments of his investment portfolio, citing confidentiality agreements that bar him from publicly disclosing the underlying assets in which he is invested.” (Steyer believes President Trump has violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution because “has directly profited from dealing with foreign governments through his businesses in the U.S. and around the globe.”)
In January, he declared that he would be “dedicating 100 percent of my time, money and effort to one cause: working for Mister Trump’s impeachment and removal from office. I am not running for president at this time. Instead I am strengthening my commitment to Need to Impeach in 2019.” But by July — well before House speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the beginning of impeachment proceedings — he changed his mind and decided to run.
Because he believes President Trump is such a danger to our democracy and the Constitution, Steyer wants to decide issues by national referendums, to enact congressional term limits and nationwide vote-by-mail, and to expand the size of the Supreme Court.
He believes that he can demonstrate a new alternative to traditional agriculture, utilizing “unconventional eco-theories about holistic management and nature-based grazing.” He’s spent $10 million, and so far demonstrated that the methods, while innovative, are not cost-effective for those who have to make a living at farming.
Now on the campaign trail, Steyer is prone to hyperbole such as, “If they win, literally it could be the end of the world.” Literally!
Even most Democrats who agree with Steyer’s positions exhibit a certain weariness about his candidacy, as he looks like a bored billionaire Democratic-party donor who’s dabbled in politics, doesn’t really know much about how government works, shoots from the hip, falls in love with every crazy idea he hears, and is willing to throw around about a hundred million to hold rallies and hear people cheering him. Just the change from the status quo that the country is looking for, right?