When Senator Kamala Harris left the Democratic presidential race, she also left a warning.
“My campaign for president simply doesn’t have the financial resources we need to continue,” she said in a statement Tuesday. “I’m not a billionaire. I can’t fund my own campaign.”
Harris qualified for this month’s Democratic debate and was polling higher than former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and hedge fund investor Tom Steyer, but that couldn’t save her White House ambitions. Her well was quickly running dry, while the billionaire contenders have more wells and water than they’ll ever need in a presidential contest they’ll never win.
As Cyndi Lauper sang, “Money Changes Everything." And it’s changing presidential politics by leaps and billions.
Bloomberg, who is worth $55 billion, has already spent about $57 million of his own money on national television ads. Though he’s skipping the Iowa caucuses in February, and will be absent from early primary ballots in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, Bloomberg, by one estimate, could spend $500 million before a single vote is cast.
For months, Steyer has been plying his just-folks routine in a relentless stream of television and digital ads. Worth $1.6 billion, he has already spent $60 million, which has gotten him on the debate stage twice. In total, he has spoken for less than 16 minutes.
Plus, his barrage of ads may not be having the campaign-boosting effect Steyer hopes for.
“At some point, you become the uninvited guest," Scott Spradling, a New Hampshire media analyst told Politico last month. "[Steyer] uniquely is becoming dangerously close.”
Political ambition fueled by money isn’t new. When John F. Kennedy first ran for Congress in 1946, his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was one of the richest men in America.
“Money was the long arm of politics, money was the mother’s milk of politics. Joe knew that before anyone else came along,” legendary former House Speaker and Massachusetts Representative Thomas “Tip” O’Neill said in “The Kennedys,” an acclaimed 1992 PBS documentary. “You can be a candidate, you can have the issues, you can have the organization. But money does miracles, and money did miracles in that campaign.”
What Kennedy ponied up for all his sons is nothing compared to what Bloomberg and Steyer are willing to spend on their own. Our electoral process, already under threat from foreign bad actors, voter suppression, and a president selling out democracy for his personal and political gain, can’t be reduced only to candidates who can afford to run. Free-spending billionaires are no less pernicious here than the tide of corporate money unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010.
We already know what this nation looks like when wealthy white men command too much power and influence. As it stands, if the next debate were held today, every contender on that stage would be white. That’s a long way from what was once the most diverse field of candidates in American history.
To be sure, Harris’s once-promising campaign was dogged by poor management, inconsistent messaging, questions about her tenure as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general and, yes, the racism and sexism that denies women of color any margin of error. But ultimately, she said, her campaign ended because of a lack of money. Other candidates are constantly scrambling for donors, while Bloomberg and Steyer can keep spending until they get bored.
So here’s Bloomberg, once the unrepentant king of New York’s “stop-and-frisk” policing, suddenly apologizing to communities of color for a policy that was both racist and ineffective. He now needs those black and brown people for votes, and not just fodder to boost his law-and-order bona fides.
Of course, Bloomberg’s money would be better spent recompensing the communities of color he allowed to be targeted and terrorized. Both he and Steyer have championed worthy endeavors from climate change to gun control with their own money. Goodbye to that; now the cause dearest to them is their own candidacies.
This is a presidential path paved with more money than most of us can imagine. How long before the new titans, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, whose social media networks have already negatively affected elections, decide they, too, should be occupying the Oval Office? If a fake billionaire like Donald Trump can ascend to the White House, don’t underestimate the ambitions of those whose egos are as bottomless as their wallets.