Money Can’t Buy You Political Instincts

Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer speaks during the fourth U.S. Democratic presidential candidates 2020 debate in Westerville, Ohio, October 15, 2019. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters )

Today’s Morning Jolt examines some of Michael Bloomberg’s appalling past comments and treatment of women employees in his workplaces, the sorts of things that were considered obnoxious, crass, and unacceptable long before anyone had heard of the #MeToo movement.

Meanwhile, Tom Steyer, another billionaire running for the Democratic presidential nomination, has dealt with less widely noticed campaign troubles. One campaign staffer resigned after being accused of stealing voter data from Kamala Harris’ campaign. Steyer’s Iowa political director has resigned amid multiple allegations he “privately offered local legislators campaign contributions in return for endorsing Steyer’s 2020 bid.” Other candidates have charged that by boosting his name recognition through at least $47 million in campaign spending so far, a significant amount of that on television commercials, he has effectively “bought” his spot on the debate stage. Nor is this the first time Steyer has been accused of simply purchasing the outcomes he wants. In 2015, Oregon governor John Kitzhaber resigned because of conflict-of-interest allegations over his first lady’s consulting contracts, consulting with nonprofits that were heavily funded by Steyer.

Our current president’s impulse control, and harsh and nasty treatment of others, particularly women, has been discussed at length.

Somewhere out there in America, there’s probably at least one billionaire who is kind, respectful, soft-spoken, gracious, humble, self-aware, and self-critical, and periodically seeks to puncture the bubble of obsequiousness that inherently surrounds those with great wealth and power. But they are rare. The kind of billionaires who seem most attracted to national politics are not that kind of person at all. Instead, they seem to be brimming with arrogance, entitlement, insufferable narcissism, and knee-jerk dismissal of even the fairest criticism.

By the time a man has a net worth of a billionaire, he’s been surrounded by people who hang on his every word for quite some time. The vast majority of the people he encounters each day are undoubtedly hoping for a favor in one form or another. Many of the people he encounters each day will be employees. Saying “boss, I hate to say it, but I don’t think that a good idea” is a difficult thing for an employee to say in many circumstances. None of this helps a man develop good political instincts.

While we don’t necessarily need a “no billionaire candidate” rule in our politics, billionaires who do want to run for president ought to understand going in that a lot of their predecessors came across as jerks. It is up to them to dispel the electorate’s well-honed skepticism that really rich guys are used to getting their way and disregarding the concerns of others. Having lots of money can only make other people like you so much.

Of course, until Trump, many billionaire candidates fell short: H. Ross Perot, Michael Huffington, Steve Forbes. (Then again, Jon Corzine, J.B. Pritzker, Bill Haslam . . .) Money can buy you a lot, but it can’t buy the love of the voters.

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