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Opinion | Richard North Patterson

Who is Tom Steyer, and why is he saying those stupid things about impeachment?

(Lesley Becker/Globe Staff illustration)

ANY habitué of cable news has seen them — the slickly-produced TV ads calling for Donald Trump’s impeachment. Each features a forceful presentation by an on-camera spokesman. “I’m Tom Steyer,” he tells us — in case we missed his name in print — “and, like you, I’m a citizen who knows it’s up to us to do something.”

The president, Steyer warns, is “a clear and present danger,” “mentally unstable,” and “armed with nuclear weapons.” His ask is simple: Visit his website, sign his impeachment petition, provide your e-mail, and follow “Tom Steyer” on Twitter and Facebook.

So who is Tom Steyer, and why is he, as he tells us, “resolved to use my savings for the public good”?

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For openers, he’s not exactly a citizen “like you.” He’s a hedge fund billionaire with the confidence to match. The Citizens United decision made him a power among Democratic donors — in 2016 alone, he spent $65 million to support progressive candidates and causes through his own super PAC. He also wants to be your president.

After Trump’s election, he hired political consultants to stake out his trajectory. When California Democrats suggested he run for a starter statewide office — like treasurer — he peremptorally dismissed them. Instead, he considered running for something grander — governor or senator. But his consultants counseled that the political fast track was to start a national anti-Trump movement — with Steyer as its face.

Swiftly, he perceived the totemic power of impeachment on the Democratic left. His $40 million ad buy has yielded an astonishing 5 million-plus mailing list — the foundation for a presidential campaign he all too clearly contemplates. After loading up on political talent and building a national organization, he has begun honing his campaign skills by holding town halls on impeachment. Impeaching Trump has become a stalking horse for Steyer’s own ambitions.

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“What harm?” one might ask. Plenty.

Campaigning on impeachment is politically and factually premature. With the Mueller investigation unfinished, voters at large reject Steyer’s message. A new PBS/NPR/Marist poll shows that 47 percent won’t support a congressional candidate who advocates impeachment — including, critically, 47 percent of independents. Unless Democrats retake the House in 2018, impeachment will never happen.

Given that reality, elected Democrats — including Bernie Sanders — have decried impeachment talk before November; congressional leaders have implored Steyer to back off. Instead, Steyer has begun using his mailing list to pressure members of congress in liberal districts to endorse impeachment.

Either Steyer thinks he knows better or, mesmerized by his own ambitions, doesn’t care. Says one of his consultants: “Frustrating members of Congress is not really our concern. . . . Tom is giving voice to the American people who want to take action.”

Little wonder that David Axelrod calls his campaign “a vanity project.” Says Democratic congresswoman Ellen Tauscher : “You can’t have a conversation about impeachment until you take the House back. . . . I think, to a certain extent, Tom knows this.”

So does Trump. The director of the Marist poll says that “the threat of impeachment provides Republicans their best point of attack looking toward the midterm elections.” The idea that an elite will use impeachment to depose their champion has become Trump’s rallying point for the Republican base.

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Already, Trump’s poll numbers are rising, the polling gap between congressional Republicans and Democrats narrowing. Democrats must reach persuadable voters who abandoned them in 2016. For that, they need a positive economic message focused on health care, income inequality, and issues like helping the so-called Dreamers (unauthorized immigrants brought to this country as children). The more they are distracted from attacking Trump’s policies favoring the rich by issues like impeachment and Stormy Daniels, the dimmer their chances of winning back Congress. And, ultimately, of impeaching Trump.

To take the curse off his wealth, Steyer presents himself as a sort of Billionaire Bernie, embracing issues favored by the party’s left. But, like the Koch brothers, he exemplifies how wealth distorts American politics. Because any self-impressed billionaire can treat the presidency as an entry-level job, Steyer is damaging Democrats’ electoral chances of blocking the man he imagines supplanting.

The ultimate irony is that the Steyer phenomena reprises Trump — the fantasy of capitalist outsider as a savior. No doubt Steyer is saner, abler, and espouses better values. But no less a businessman than Michael Bloomberg proved himself in the crucible of lesser office. Steyer can’t be bothered.

For some, “politician” is a dirty word. But politics is a profession — boundless ego may serve ambition, but by itself, it’s flat-out dangerous. The presidency requires experience, skill, and a collaborative grasp of how government works. No one without them should follow Donald Trump.


Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.

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