Dear Tom Steyer,
We need to talk.
I get it. You want to be president. Who wouldn’t? It’s a great job. You get to live in a big house, fly around the world on a fancy jet, and on a good day, you get to change people’s lives for the better.
But here’s the thing: you already live in a big house, you can afford to fly on a fancy jet (though to your credit you don’t) and you’re already in a position to have a positive impact on people’s lives. You don’t need to run for president.
You’ve pledged to spend $100 million on your campaign for the White House and your nearly $10 million down payment on television and digital advertisements will likely ensure that you get the polling numbers you need to be a participant in the next Democratic presidential debate in September.
But if your own stated rationale for running is to undo a broken political system in which “corporations have bought democracy” and “rigged the system” against the middle class, isn’t using your billions — earned as a hedge fund manager — to get a seat at the table a bit hypocritical?
Seems there might be a better messenger for the argument that big-pocketed donors are having a corrosive impact on politics among the 20-plus current candidates for the job — most of whom have the added benefit of actually having served in government at some point. Maybe you’re right that you’re the only person who can take on Donald Trump on the economy. But where’s the evidence that you are prepared to be president of the United States?
Don’t get me wrong — you’re a generous guy. You’ve given millions to charity. You spent $100 million in 2018 to help House candidates. You put $50 million toward running those impeachment ads against President Trump the past couple of years (though, truth be told, I’m not sure they had much impact). But $100 million toward a longshot bid for president seems, how shall we say, a tad wasteful.
You could devote your vast fortune to helping Democrats win back control of the Senate in 2020. Without a majority there, a Democratic president won’t have much of a chance to enact a progressive political agenda.
I don’t mean to dump all this on you. Consider all the other presidential candidates with little chance of winning who, if they ran for the Senate, could put the upper chamber back in Democratic hands. I’m looking at you Steve Bullock of Montana and Beto O’Rourke of Texas. At least John Hickenlooper has seen the light and seems ready to jump into the Senate race in Colorado, where he’d be the favorite.
Even more pressing is the Democratic deficit on the state level. Today, 30 of the 50 state legislatures in America are controlled by Republicans versus 18 for Democrats. Twenty-two state governments— including the governor — are completely controlled by the GOP. Democrats control 14. As Eric Levitz points out in New York magazine, the $10 million you’ve already spent could have funded roughly 66 Democratic campaigns for state legislature. Just a few flipped seats here and there, and Democrats could win back a few of these legislatures and stop some of the GOP’s more extreme policy ideas — like draconian restrictions on abortion or roadblocks to voting rights.
Wouldn’t that be a better use of your vast fortune — and your genuine desire to reverse Republican political dominance — than a quixotic bid for the White House that has little chance of success?
One of the reasons Democrats are playing from behind today is that they have long fetishized the presidency at the expense of down ballot races that often have a more significant impact on the daily lives of Americans. I understand that funding a state legislative candidate in Tennessee or Florida or Texas might not be the sexiest way to spend your money. I get that supporting a super PAC running ads for a Democratic Senate candidate in North Carolina or Iowa is less invigorating that being in a presidential debate. But if you mean what you say about changing America for the better — which I believe you do — it’s far more important.
You have a power that few Americans possess. You have a vast fortune that can directly influence the political system. Use it wisely.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.