In the US there have been two inexorable trends that have long threatened to doom even the pretense of being a democracy. One is the fact that election days are cemented into the calendar, which means that politicians can plan and execute their campaigns well in advance, though a thin façade of decorum requires them to demur from having such ambitions until somewhat closer to the date. This long gestation period necessarily results in campaigns becoming more expensive. This is true for all elections but most pronounced in contests for the presidency. In the 2012 election, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spent on the order of one billion dollars each, an obscene amount.
Naturally this means that wealthy campaign donors are more important to candidates and thus gain more influence. But in the past, the Byzantine campaign financing regulations required big money interests to do things like bundling and contributing via parties and outside groups and this to some extent required many rich people to contribute. This classic oligarchic system, where a wealthy class determines who can run for office so that whoever wins is obligated to the same group and will serve their interests, now seems quaintly outdated because one consequence of these policies favoring the rich is that from among the wealthy class has emerged a super-wealthy class among whom are individuals who are able and willing to spend one billion dollars on their own to advance their interests.
With the freeing up of most campaign financing restrictions, you no longer need a collective of rich people to support you. It is now the case that a single mega-rich donor can openly purchase a candidate. This was dramatically demonstrated in the 2012 election when billionaire Sheldon Adelson entered the fray and single-handedly threatened to end Mitt Romney’s march to the Republican nomination. Adelson’s vehicle of choice was the improbable Newt Gingrich. Gingrich is a political hack and has-been with so much personal and professional baggage that by any reasonable yardstick he should have been laughed out of the race. But solely with Adelson’s financial backing, he had such a surge of wins that at one point he said that it was inevitable that he would get the Republican nomination.
Romney had the money to fend him off after a bruising battle and once Gingrich faded, Adelson contributed heavily to the Romney-Ryan campaign too because the oligarchy likes all politicians to be beholden to them. But that burst of Gingrich success had two consequences. One is that candidates realized the power of having one mega-rich backer willing to spend freely. The other is that Adelson realized that he had the power to sway elections and that he needed to be a little more strategic the next time around.
So this time he has decided to start early and have an audition process where prospective candidates would come and grovel before him for his support, to kiss his ring so to speak. He wants to pick the person whom he thinks can win the presidency, support that person mightily, and then have that person beholden to him once in office. This is a much more naked and public exercise of raw political influence than has been witnessed before.
We now have the spectacle of what has been labeled ‘the Adelson primary’ (or sometimes ‘the Sheldon primary’) in which Republican candidates go to a major soiree hosted by Adelson and his friends in the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas, the home turf of his gambling empire, in order to get his blessing and hopefully his money.
This strategy would favor more-established 2016 hopefuls such as former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. All four will descend this week on Adelson’s luxury hotel in Las Vegas, the Venetian, for an important step in what some are calling the “Sheldon Primary.”
Officially, the potential 2016 candidates will be at the Venetian for the spring meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which begins Thursday with a golf outing, followed by a VIP dinner featuring Bush and hosted by the Adelsons in the private airplane hangar where Adelson keeps his fleet.
But some of the most important events will occur between the poker tournament, Scotch tasting and strategy workshops. That’s when Adelson is scheduled to hold casual one-on-one chats — over coffee, at dinner or in his private office — with the prospective candidates.
In addition to the four people mentioned above, almost every other Republican thinking about running seems anxious to curry favor with Adelson. Marco Rubio auditioned at last year’s event and Mike Huckabee has also curried favor with him. Paul Ryan has already developed ties with Adelson from his vice-presidential run in 2012 and presumably meets with his approval.
A senior strategist who has advised past GOP nominees said the 2016 hopefuls “are just falling at his feet.”
“It’s a bunch of people out scrounging for the same dollars, and Sheldon represents the largest or second-largest box of money,” said the strategist, who spoke candidly on the condition of anonymity.
This public process of influence buying has been so unseemly that it has some Republican strategists like George W. Bush’s chief strategist for the 2004 campaign worried about how it looks, saying “I think it’s ridiculous that these candidates for president are trumping out to Las Vegas to go kiss the ring of a billionaire casino owner.”
The only two likely candidates who have not been overtly courting Adelson are Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. It is not clear whether this is by design or whether they are biding their time for the most opportune moment.
So what does Adelson want for his money? Like all oligarchs he wants to keep increasing his wealth so that means the usual laundry list of lower taxes for the wealthy, cutting social services that benefit the poor and middle class, opposing unions, and blocking the raising of the minimum wage, and so on. While this group often has liberal social views, those are considered incidental and can sacrificed in the service of greater wealth.
But Adelson (and his wife) have one particular over-riding interest and that is his unwavering support for the most extreme policies of Israel. But this major factor is being treated somewhat coyly by the media. You have to read to the bottom of the above Washington Post article to see a mention of this and learn that “Adelson, who is worth an estimated $37.9 billion, according to Bloomberg, is a staunch supporter of Israel.”
‘Staunch supporter’ is putting it mildly. Adelson has made no secret of the fact that he places the interests of Israel above all else. As Philip Weiss pointed out, you would have thought that Adelson’s publicly stated recommendation to president Obama at a function at Yeshiva University in October 2013 that the US should ‘nuke Iran’, would merit some mention. This barbaric statement was met with applause by the audience.
Adelson went on to say things like ‘Muslims want to kill 100% of the Jews’, that the creation of a Palestinian state would be the precursor to another Holocaust, and even that there was no such thing as a Palestinian people. Neither Samantha Power, Obama’s Ambassador to the UN, nor then-Democratic senate candidate Cory Booker, both of whom were on the platform with Adelson, pushed back against these outrageous statements.
You get a sense of Adelson’s power over these candidates by seeing what happened to Chris Christie. During his audition speech to the Republican Jewish Convention, Christie gushed over Israel but in the course of his pandering he mentioned visiting the country and flying over the occupied territories. But the perfectly uncontroversial phrase ‘occupied territories’ is anathema to this group and Christie, the guy who boasts about how he speaks his mind without fear, was hauled afterwards into a private meeting with Adelson to do penance and apologize. Recall how Gingrich adopted Adelson’s extremely hard line against Iran and that the Palestinians are an ‘invented people’, both pet concerns of Adelson, and you can see how candidates are willing to say and do whatever their benefactor wants.
These are the strong passions of the person who may well be pulling the strings of the next US president. It is extraordinary to think that a single unelected individual has so much say in the election of a president but this is the inevitable result of a process set in motion a long time ago.