Subjecting Billionaire Donors to Scrutiny

Reporters should apply the same level of scrutiny to campaign financiers as they do to political candidates.

Sheldon Adelson at a news conference in Tokyo. (Yuya Shino / Reuters)
Almost every day brings fresh evidence that running for president is now less an exercise in wooing voters than in wooing the ultra-rich. On Thursday, The New York Times reported that “Hillary Rodham Clinton will begin personally courting donors for a ‘super PAC’ supporting her candidacy.” Super PACs, for those blessedly unaware, are the instruments through which rich people give candidates unlimited amounts of money. The Obama campaign established one in 2012 but because, in theory, super PACs are independent from the candidates they support, President Obama did not appear at its events. Hillary is showing no such restraint. According to the Times, she will spend much of the coming weeks nibbling hors d’oeuvres in the company of people she hopes will write her super PAC five-, six- or even seven-figure checks.
As an official presidential candidate, she can’t ask for such vast sums directly. An underling will have to do that. But even that makes her pure compared to Jeb Bush, who has resisted formally announcing his candidacy in part because it liberates him to make the ask himself. “In the last presidential contest,” notes The Washington Post’s Matea Gold, “super PACs were an exotic add-on for most candidates. This time, they are the first priority.” In 2012, they spent $230 million. This year, predicts Politico’s Tarini Parti, they will spend $5 billion.
As the sums explode, so does the power of a tiny group of billionaires. Last spring, Chris Christie—a man not known for his humility—apologized to Sheldon Adelson for having called the West Bank, where Palestinians live as non-citizens under military law, the “occupied territories.” Last month in Buzzfeed, McKay Coppins reported that Marco Rubio, who avoids publicly discussing his work on a immigration bill disliked by grassroots conservatives, has been “enthusiastic” about discussing it privately with the big-money GOP donors who favor comprehensive immigration reform. It’s become commonplace for political reporters to discuss not merely the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, but the “Adelson primary” and the “Koch primary.” And for good reason: Winning the support of these men—who will likely give their favored candidate tens of millions of dollars—may be as important as winning certain primary states.
Legally, nothing can be done about this, at least right now. Earlier this month, a woman named Ann Ravel told The New York Times that the Federal Elections Commission, which is supposed to enforce those campaign-finance restrictions that still exist, will not do so. “The likelihood of the [election] laws being enforced is slim,” Ravel explained, “People think the FEC is dysfunctional. It’s worse than dysfunctional.” Ravel should know. She’s the FEC’s chairwoman.
For the time being, therefore, this shift from democracy to oligarchy must be fought not legally, but culturally and politically. The stigma that comes from donating millions of dollars to a presidential candidate—and from receiving it—must increase.
The press can help make this happen. Right now, while presidential candidates experience proctological scrutiny from the press, mega-donors experience relatively little. As a result, they wield enormous power over government policy without facing the public glare that, in a democracy, those with great political power should have to endure.  
There are two ways journalists can change this. The first is to appeal to donors’s egos. Today, it’s rare to see mega-donors interviewed on television. But, if asked, some would likely appear, if only to increase their fame. Lacking the experience in rhetorical obfuscation that politicians learn on the job, the ultra-rich would frequently say controversial and even lunatic things. Sheldon Adelson, for instance, in a 2013 discussion at Yeshiva University, suggested dropping a nuclear bomb on Iran. If he said that on “Meet the Press,” journalists might ask Marco Rubio, who reportedly talks to Adelson every two weeks, to repudiate his potential benefactor. Rubio almost certainly would not. But the political cost of taking Adelson’s money would rise.
Savvier donors will resist the temptation to make public fools of themselves. In which case, the press should to go to them. Reporters should do whatever it takes, consistent with journalistic ethics and the law, to find out which donors met which candidates, and who said what to whom. After all, the creation of a secret political discourse, in which rich people pay money to hear candidates say things they won’t say in public, is profoundly undemocratic.
The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman provided a great example of what such reporting can achieve when she broke the news last month that two gay hoteliers, Matt Weiderpass and Ian Reisner, had held an event for Ted Cruz, apparently because they share his hawkish views on Israel. By making the event public, Haberman made Cruz—who had been going around evangelical Iowa denouncing gay marriage—look like a hypocrite. And she made Weiderpass and Reisner—whose hotels were quickly boycotted by gay groups—look like traitors to their community. By making a private event public, in other words, Haberman threw sand in the Super PAC Machine.  
Mega-donors should face a version of the same tradeoff politicians face. Presidential candidates know that in exchange for pursuing immense political power, they must forfeit much of their privacy. Mega-donors, who are also seeking immense political power via their donations, should have to make the same trade. Journalists should not only investigate their interactions with politicians, they should ferret out information about what they believe and how they conduct their affairs.
Last month, The New York Times offered a model for how to do that when Eric Lichtblau and Alexandra Stevenson reported that a hedge fund tycoon named Robert Mercer had donated millions, if not tens of millions, to super PACs associated with Cruz. Lichtblau and Stevenson went on to note that the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has accused Mercer’s hedge fund of cheating the government out of $6 billion in taxes. (Both Mercer and Cruz want to abolish the IRS). They also reported that workers in Mercer’s home had sued him for not paying them overtime, and that Mercer had himself sued a toy manufacturer for allegedly overcharging him $2 million when it constructed a model railroad in his house. Will these unflattering nuggets embarrass Mercer into abandoning super PACs? I don’t know. But if such reporting became the norm, it would scare away some donors. And American democracy would be better for it.
The main thing is not to accept the billionaire takeover of presidential campaigns as normal, not to use phrases like “Adelson primary” or “Koch primary” except as terms of contempt. One day, if we’re lucky, America will witness a vast mobilization—as significant as the populist and progressive movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—that frontally attacks the oligarchy that dominates our gilded age. Until then, journalists should fight a cultural guerrilla war.