By Jeff Greenfield
When I heard the radio commercial attacking a candidate for the Los Angeles School Board, it didn’t make much of an impression—until I heard the tag line.
Funding for the ad, the announcer said, came primarily from “Michael R. Bloomberg.”
What? The mayor of New York City putting money into a school board race on the other side of the continent?
Yes, indeed. Bloomberg has donated $1 million to the Coalition for School Reform, which backs many of the same school reforms—tougher teacher evaluations, more charter schools—that Bloomberg has pushed for in the city he governs.
Half a continent away, Bloomberg’s money also was at work in the political terrain: His pro-gun-control super PAC, Independence USA, spent at least $2.2 million in a special congressional election in Chicago, four times what the top five candidates' campaigns spent — combined. And it paid off. His candidate, gun-control backer Robin Kelly defeated former Rep. Debbie Halvorson, once the odds-on favorite to succeed Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.
This largesse follows on the heels of Bloomberg’s multi-million-dollar spending in a series of races last year, such as the California U.S. House of Representatives race between Democrat Gloria Negrete McLeod and incumbent Democratic Rep. Joe Baca. Independence USA put $3.3 million into McLeod’s campaign to unseat Baca, a foe of gun-control measures.
Why does this story intrigue me? Because for much of last year, one of the obsessions of the liberal-progressive side of the political spectrum was the fear—bordering on terror—that a collection of “millionaires and billionaires” would unleash a money bomb of staggering proportions that would overwhelm the political process, defeating President Obama and sending armies of legislators and executives into power.
Over here were the Koch brothers, with their think tanks and their political action committees, pushing their anti-environmental agenda; over there was Sheldon Adelson, with his millions keeping alive the presidential candidacy of Newt Gingrich. Feeding this fear was the worry over the Citizens United case, in which the Supreme Court had eviscerated a century of campaign finance regulation, permitting those millionaires and billionaires to make “one man one vote” an anachronism, replaced by “one million dollars, one million votes.”
In Michael Bloomberg, we have one of the wealthiest people in the world—with a net worth estimated as high as $25 billion—prepared to put at least some of his money where his political beliefs are. And if, as Bob Dylan says, "money doesn't talk, it swears,” Bloomberg has the potential to sound like a David Mamet play. Consider: Over the past decade, the National Rifle Association (with its subsidiaries and employees) has donated $2.8 million in campaign contributions. For Bloomberg, that’s not even tip money.
So, the question is: If you’re of a liberal or progressive persuasion, are you appalled by the presence of a single individual with the power to shape political races from one end of the country to the other? Or do you welcome the “leveling of the playing field?”
What’s at play here is the concept of what legal scholars call “neutral principles”—or, as it’s better known, “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.” If you think money has far too much power in politics, how do you feel when a ton of money is put on the table from “your” side?
Remember, the first presidential candidate to reject public financing for both the primary and general election was...Barack Obama, in 2008. He did it, in spite of a flat pledge to the contrary, because his campaign saw that it could vastly outspend John McCain. And if that spending in part came from a flood of small contributions, which can hardly be said of Bloomberg—one individual with billions at his disposal.
A reasonable response to this is to raise the issue of unilateral disarmament—as long as the law permits the mega-rich to spend limitless funds on politics, our mega-rich would be foolish not to. Indeed, at least one well-known figure on the left has gone further, at least in his imagination. Back in 2009, Ralph Nader penned “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us”—a 700-page fantasy in which Warren Buffett, Ted Turner, Barry Diller, Yoko Ono and a clutch of others pool together some $15 billion and reshape American politics into a progressive utopia.
If Michael Bloomberg decided to try this, he could hold the meeting in a phone booth.
By Jeff Greenfield