Terrance Heath

2012: The Year of the Billionaire

Filed By Terrance Heath | February 21, 2012 4:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: 2012 election, Barack Obama, Citizens United, presidential election, super PAC

Thanks in large part to the phenomenon of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, 2008 was known as the year of the small donor. Citizens United Carpet Bombing Democracy - CartoonWhile Barack Obama can’t called it’s herald, his decision to accept, if not embrace, the reality of super PACs suggests that the 2012 presidential election -- the first post-Citizens United presidential election -- may become known as the Year of the Super PAC. (There’s word that even Occupy Wall Street could get a super PAC.) Maybe. But that barely scratches the surface. So far, the 2012 race suggests that behind every successful candidate is a well-funded super PAC. And behind every power well-funded PAC is an even more powerful backer with very deep pockets. Take a closer look, and bigger story is that 2012 election may turn out to be The Year of the Billionaire.

In 2008, candidate Obama turned down “$85 million in no-strings-attached money,” and went on to raise (and spend) $640 million from private donors. This year, President Obama is outpacing his 2008 record for raising money from small donors. In the interim, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling opened the door to anonymous, unlimited corporate campaign contributions. Now, in a reversal of his 2008 policy, President Obama has

Sure, super PACs get money from “little guys” too -- small donors who give anywhere from $5 to $100. But, almost all super PAC money comes in contributions of $100,000 or more, from about 196 individuals. As Ari Berman pointed out, “the super PACs on both sides of the aisle are financed by the 1% of the 1.” That means billionaires, and the new rule of American politics seems to be that every candidate that’s going to have a shot at winning, or just getting his or her message out, should have one. And in 2012, most of them -- even those will little change of even winning a primary race -- do.

Depending on whom you ask, President Obama’s decision to encourage donations to his own super PAC is either a sad reflection of the state of politics, or a pragmatic decision to “bring a gun to a gun fight.” (Being caught flat-footed when attacked by a Koch-funded super PAC may have been the tipping point.) The president has been accused of using Republicans’ rhetoric to justify the move. If so, there’s a bit more urgency on the president’s part. Republicans claim their use of super PACs stems from a fear of facing an incumbent Obama with a $1 billion war chest. In January, before the president’s change of heart, Obama’s super PAC raised a mere $59,000, compared to the Republican hauls listed above.

The urgency on the president’s part has its match in the irony of the GOPs position the age of super PACs. After all their breast-beating about “fiscal responsibility” and the evils of “dependency,” all the major Republican presidential campaign have become dependent upon super PACs and their billionaire backers as a result of excessive spending.

Weeks of intense campaigning in the early nominating states have left the leading Republican presidential candidates increasingly dependent on millions of dollars spent on their behalf by outside "super PACs," reports filed with the Federal Election Commission on Monday showed.

Mitt Romney's campaign spent close to $19 million during January, almost three times as much as the $6.5 million he raised. He ultimately won two states, New Hampshire and Florida, and ended the month with less than $8 million in cash on hand. Newt Gingrich raised nearly as much, $5.6 million, and spent close to $6 million.

Rick Santorum, who enjoyed a surge of grass-roots donations after being declared the victor in Iowa, raised $4.5 million, as did Representative Ron Paul of Texas. The amounts still leave Mr. Romney in the lead, but no longer in a class by himself.

…The spending reports revealed the breadth and power of super PACs as the campaign hits a critical and perhaps decisive period, with outside groups poised to pick up a growing share of political spending during the costly primary battle that lies ahead.

(In fact, Barack Obama’s biggest boon in 2012 may be Romney’s tendency to burn through money and donors.)

The breadth and power of the super PACs is due in large part to the power of their billionaire backers like Adelson, Friess, Kovner, Simmons, Friess, Thiel. After all, their money has given life to campaigns and candidates that might not have otherwise gotten this far -- most recently, a front runner who can’t get the GOP base and an insurgent who can’t get beyond the GOP base.

What makes an otherwise utterly un-relatable candidate a front runner? What can take a candidate who lost his last election by 19% from punch line to possibility? Other people’s money. Look at the way that these guys spread their considerable wealth around -- a few hundred thousand dollars here, a million there -- and you could be forgiven for thinking it looks like their betting on politics the way one might bet on horse races. (Though the GOP’s billionaire backers may have been betting on a brokered convention all along.)

It wasn’t for nothing that Robert Borosage called super PACs the derivatives of politics. The way their spread their money and shift their loyalties between candidates, that makes it clear that these guys aren’t gamblers. They’re investors, which means they expect returns.

Have you heard of William Dore, Foster Friess, Sheldon Adelson, Harold Simmons, Peter Thiel, or Bruce Kovner? If not, let me introduce them to you. They're running for the Republican nomination for president.

I know, I know. You think Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Mitt Romney are running. They are - but only because the people listed in the first paragraph have given them huge sums of money to do so. In a sense, Santorum, Gingrich, Paul, and Romney are the fronts. Dore et al. are the real investors.

…Bottom line: Whoever emerges as the GOP standard-bearer will be deeply indebted to a handful of people, each of whom will expect a good return on their investment.

And this is just the beginning. We haven't even come to the general election.

If current trends continue, come the general election we see a billionaire-brokered convention yield to a billionaire-run democracy.

When all is said and done, this race for the White House may cost more than two billion dollars. What's getting trampled into dust are the voices of people who aren't rich, not to mention what's left of our democracy. As Democratic pollster Peter Hart told The New Yorker magazine's Jane Mayer, "It's become a situation where the contest is how much you can destroy the system, rather than how much you can make it work. It makes no difference if you have a 'D' or an 'R' after your name. There's no sense that this is about democracy, and after the election you have to work together, and knit the country together."

These gargantuan Super PAC contributions are not an end in themselves. They are the means to gain control of government - and the nation state -- for a reason. The French writer and economist Frederic Bastiat said it plainly: "When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living in society, they create for themselves, in the course of time, a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it." That's what the Super PACs are bidding on. For the rest of us, the ship may already have sailed.

Earlier this month, I wrote that Citizens United basically had the effect of uniting the 1 percent. With each FEC filing report, it becomes clear that that the 1 percent is uniting for a purpose.

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