Draft Tom Steyer

Column: What the World Needs Now is a Straight White Male Billionaire Democrat

Tom Steyer
Tom Steyer / David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
• January 23, 2015 5:00 am


Barbara Boxer has decided to spare the country further embarrassment and retire from the U.S. Senate in 2016. California Democrats need a replacement. As of this writing they have only one declared candidate: state attorney general Kamala Harris. Harris is liberal, modish, and a favorite of President Obama’s. But she’s not for me. My man is Tom Steyer.

Yes, Steyer took to the Huffington Post yesterday to say, "I believe my work right now should not be in our nation's capital but here at home in California, and in states around the country where we can make a difference." Really, though, Steyer owes it to us—more specifically, he owes it to me—to run. And if you and your friends demand his participation, I think we can get him to change his mind.

What better face for the Democratic Party than a straight white gender-conforming male worth $1.6 billion who gave up finance capitalism for cronyism? This billionaire’s political career is a study in what money can buy: His support for Obama bought him a speaking gig at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, and the $74 million he spent in the 2014 cycle got him White House access, Democratic votes against the Keystone pipeline, and a presidential veto threat. I cannot be the sole political junkie who is curious as to how much an endorsement by Hillary Clinton actually costs. $10 million, $20 million—if Steyer were to run, we would find out.

How ironic would it be, how sweetly delicious, if the first billionaire senator of the twenty-first century was not a Republican but a Democrat who stood against consumers, unions, Canada, and impoverished Third World nations; whose hobbyhorse is at the bottom of public priorities; whose inspiration is the fringe author and cross-country skier Bill McKibben; who owns, among a gazillion other things, an 1,800-acre coastal property in California known as the "TomKat Ranch" that includes "a long-waist high granite pool filled with koi, the remains of an unsuccessful attempt at sustainable fish farming that now doubles as a huge outdoor dining table"; whose decades in finance involved such questionable investments and dodgy moves as an attempt to manipulate the Russian economy, ties to a $67 million Ponzi scheme, coal plants that the New York Times says "will generate tens of millions of tons of carbon pollution for years, if not decades, to come," and a plot to steal water from Colorado ranchers worthy of Daniel Plainview; whose behavior was so rapacious and so ethically suspect that a divestment campaign was organized to combat it; who donated to politicians and think tanks that advocated for subsidies to green energy companies while he and his hedge fund profited from those very policies; who admits that environmental radicalism is an "opportunity to make a lot of money"; whose separation from his fund, announced in December 2012, was "ongoing" as of June 2014; who so well represents the new liberalism, its hypocrisies and aristocratic bearing, its moral sanctimony and group-think and apocalyptic fever, its almost awe-inspiring capacity to delude the affluent, entitled, privileged, conformist, and banal into thinking that they are the confederates of the poor, the boosters of the downtrodden, intellectual rebels and oh so quirky and special.

A Steyer campaign would be good for everyone. Surely Democratic fixer Chris Lehane, who has made a fortune off of Steyer’s political enthusiasms, would be able to afford another house. And so would many other political consultants, indeed anyone able to land a contract or take a percentage of television advertising during a competitive jungle primary in which both of the top-place finishers could be Democrats. The insider has no better friend than a candidate who can self-fund, who can exhaust enormous sums of money in what may turn out to be a quixotic, but for some people lucrative, pursuit.

Republicans would also benefit from a Steyer candidacy. It would be nothing less than a coup to have his time, his energy, and his $1.6 billion occupied by California—in a race Democrats are practically guaranteed to win—during the pivotal 2016 cycle. Indeed, it is probably for this very reason that Steyer has expressed his reluctance to enter the campaign. He shouldn't worry. He has plenty of money to waste both in California and "in states across the country where we can make a difference."

Steyer is not a natural candidate. He is wooden and obsessed and out of touch and a little bit weird. When the press has examined his investments, when it has looked inside his political operation, the results have not been uniformly positive. He has all the trappings of a Mitt Romney or a Bruce Braley, ambitious bounders who credulously believed that success in private equity or in ambulance chasing would be easily transferable to the stump.

Awkward silences, ignorance of foreign policy and social issues, malapropisms, unbidden disclosures, gaffes—the attacks on Steyer would write themselves. And the best part is that it would be Democrats who would write them! The left would turn on itself, and the California media would take on the character of the Washington Free Beacon—immeasurably improving their quality—as operatives for Kamala Harris or Antonio Villaraigosa place stories damaging to their oligarchic foil.

Steyer is already something of an embarrassment for the Democrats, a man whose money they desperately need but whose issues, need for publicity, social prominence, and political footprint undermine their calls for working-class solidarity and for a politics unsullied by the rich. And so his running for office possibly would help them, too, by creating space for candidates in the Midwest and Rust Belt to ignore climate change and reject his demands, to focus on economics or abortion or immigration or whatever their strategy might be. One wonders whether Braley and Mark Udall and Kay Hagan, as they enjoy retirement at lobbying firms or the Kennedy School of Government, ever regret catering so obsequiously to Steyer, whether they understand that voters don’t really go for the whole raise-my-energy-bill thing. Possibly they are just as convinced as he is, as the president seems to be, that a rise in global temperatures is the most serious threat facing our civilization. Bold stance. With Steyer occupied, a Democrat more interested in payrolls than in polar bears at least would have the chance to argue her case.

Rare is the candidacy that would have something for everyone. I myself cannot wait for one moment in particular. If we are able to convince Tom Steyer to change his mind, there will come a day when the lady from Goldman Sachs, Hillary "We were dead broke" Clinton, jets to the Golden State to rally behind him, to warn the nation of the climate change peril and lend her support not only to Steyer's candidacy but also to his agenda of taxes, subsidies, high density, and low growth. On the stage, surrounded by a worshipful crowd and armed guards, Clinton and Steyer will smile foolishly, will wave and laugh and beam. Then they will embrace.

And for that brief moment, no more than a few seconds, the world will see what liberalism looks like: a pair of insanely rich and connected white grandparents, a billionaire and a former first lady, two wooden geriatrics congratulating themselves for imposing costs on their social inferiors to address a questionable problem no one cares about. Aging, powerful, insular, bejeweled, removed, self-important, self-obsessed, daft, and lily-lily-white—ladies and gentlemen and two-spirits, I present to you the face of the Democratic Party!