Tom Steyer is obviously unqualified to be on the Democratic debate stage. But he’s proving that by simply throwing money at an election, he can do well.
The billionaire is perhaps the biggest donor to Democratic causes, and was one of President Obama’s biggest bundlers in 2012. But merely writing checks wasn’t enough for Steyer, who declared his candidacy for the presidency last month with a promise to fund his own campaign to the tune of at least $100 million.
On Tuesday, Steyer announced that he had met the 130,000 donor threshold to make it onto the Democratic debate stage in September in Houston, Texas. If Steyer polls at 2% in just one more state-based poll, he’ll be guaranteed a spot.
I'm thrilled to announce that today we've reached the required 130,000 individual donors to appear in September's debate. Just one more qualifying poll stands between us and that stage!
Thanks to all who've contributed even $1 to this movement. We can't do this without you.
— Tom Steyer (@TomSteyer) August 13, 2019
According to the RealClearPolitics presidential poll aggregator, Tom Steyer is at just 0.5%, on par with bottom-tier candidates like Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), author Marianne Williamson, Congressman Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), and former Congressman John Delaney (D-Maryland).
However, Steyer has been able to boost his name recognition thanks to spending eye-opening sums of cash on both TV ads and social media ads. According to The Wrap, Steyer has even outspent President Trump on Facebook ads, with $2.94 million to Trump’s $1.3 million. Steyer has also spent $50,000 more on Google ads than Trump, with $661,000 compared to the president’s $616,000.
Tom Steyer’s ads are also being heavily aired in the early primary states. OpenSecrets reported that the billionaire former hedge fund manager has spent over $3.7 million on TV ads in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada — the four early primary and caucus states. Should he meet the Democratic National Committee’s requirements, he would be on the debate stage in September alongside Senators Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), Kamala Harris (D-California), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont), Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, and basic income advocate Andrew Yang.
Should Steyer make it onto the debate stage, he would be doing so ahead of several more qualified candidates, like Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who is serving his second term as governor and running on a platform of addressing the global warming crisis. Two other two-term governors — former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and current Montana Governor Steve Bullock — are also likely to not make it despite their credentials.
According to the Denver Post, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro have met the funding threshold, but have not yet met the polling threshold to qualify for the September debate.
Unlike these other candidates (with the exception of Yang), Tom Steyer has no experience either as an elected official at the federal or state level, or even as a cabinet official, like Castro. And while Yang at least has a niche role to fill during the Democratic primary by floating the basic income conversation, Steyer has no unique policy visions to propose, and there’s no “Issues” section on his campaign website. The “Priorities” section of his website details a “5 Rights” plan that calls for expanded voting rights, clean air and water, education, a living wage, and healthcare.
While those things sound nice, there’s nowhere on Steyer’s site where those proposals are fleshed out in more detail. And those proposals soundly oddly similar to Sen. Sanders’ “21st Century Bill of Rights,” in which he builds out on former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Economic Bill of Rights by calling on the right to a decent job that pays a living wage, the right to quality healthcare, the right to a complete education, the right to affordable housing, the right to a clean environment, and the right to a secure retirement.
Comparatively, “The Right to Health” plank of Tom Steyer’s “5 Rights” plan noticeably excludes the words “Medicare for All” or “Single Payer,” or even “public option.” And Steyer’s two-sentence “Right to Clean Air and Clean Water” is an empty platitude when compared to Gov. Inslee’s “Climate Mission.” It’s worth questioning why Steyer is running for president, especially since he’s also still continuing his “Impeach Trump” campaign. Essentially, a billionaire presidential candidate wants to unseat a billionaire president so he can be America’s second consecutive billionaire president. And he’s doing it the same way — buying his own ticket.
Earlier this year, Sen. Warren called on all Democratic candidates for president to take a pledge to only depend on grassroots donors — not billionaire donors — and for billionaires who want to self-fund their campaigns to stay out of the race entirely.
“This is a moment for all of the democratic nominees as they come into the race to say, in a Democratic primary, we are going to link arms, and we’re going to say grassroots funding. No to the billionaires. No to the billionaires, whether they’re self-funding or whether they’re funding PACs,” Warren told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. “We are the Democratic Party, and that’s the party of the people.”
Steyer making it to the Democratic debate would be further proof that the power of money in politics is limitless, and could be a dark predictor of times to come. If Trump can buy his way to the presidency, why can’t Tom Steyer? And in the meantime, why not Jeff Bezos? The Amazon founder’s net worth is currently at $113 billion, whereas Steyer’s is barely a billionaire with a $1.6 billion net worth. If Steyer spends not just $100 million, but $1 billion, and won, that would mean Bezos could theoretically buy the presidency 100 times over and still be a billionaire.
We can either welcome our new overlords and abandon the idea of democracy altogether, or we can insist that we want to be a nation where the wealthy can’t simply buy the government and use it to further their greed. The time to make that choice is right now.
(Featured image: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.