Juan Williams: Politics, a sport for billionaires

Juan Williams

Tom Perkins, a Republican billionaire venture capitalist, once offered a “Hunger Games” take on money and American politics.

“You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes — how’s that?” Perkins proposed in a speech last year.

Perkins’ words sound like a billionaire’s fantasy unleashed about total political dominance of the lower 99.9 percent.

But that fantasy is close to the reality of the 2016 election cycle in which, The New York Times reports, just 158 families have given half of all the money donated to presidential candidates. All but 20 of those wealthy families have given their money to Republicans.

That fits with earlier findings that since 2010 only 195 “individuals and their spouses gave almost 60 percent” of the $1 billion channeled to super-PACs. Those numbers come from a report by the Brennan Center for Law & Justice in a review of the money gushing into politics since the Supreme Court ruled that unlimited contributions are to be protected as a matter of free speech.

Big dollars coming from super-PACs have doubled in Senate races since 2010, according to the Brennan Center. The group found that “of the 10 highest-spending super-PACs in the most competitive Senate races in 2014” only two got more than one percent of their contributions from individual donors who gave $200 or less.

At the moment, big money is also dominating the Republican presidential primary. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas had lagged in polls but has remained competitive largely due to the $11 million given to his super-PAC by one hedge fund manager, Robert Mercer.

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, is also failing to gain support from voters but he has raised more than $100 million for his super-PAC. The group began the year with a $100,000-per-ticket fundraiser hosted by Henry Kravis, a New York businessman.

And last week Sen. Marco Rubio’s (Fla.) campaign, which is rising after a slow start, got a big shot in the arm because of an endorsement from billionaire investor Paul Singer. The 70-year-old topped all conservative donors in the 2014 midterm elections, and he is a top bundler of donations from other rich people. His support is so important to Republicans that Bush sent two top aides to Singer’s office in a last-ditch effort to stop him from endorsing Rubio.

The most surprising Republican critic of these big money donations is the candidate who describes himself as “very rich” — billionaire New York developer Donald Trump. Trump calls the flood of outside money flowing through the super-PACs a “scam.” He charges his fellow Republicans with transgressing the limits that were placed on any coordinated planning between the super-PACs and individual campaigns as a consequence of the Supreme Court ruling: “They are not only breaking the spirit of the law but the law itself,” Trump alleges.

Trump has asked that all super-PAC money raised in his name be returned.

“I am self-funding my campaign and therefore I will not be controlled by the donors, special interests and lobbyists who have corrupted our politics and politicians for far too long,” said Trump in a statement announcing the decision. The mogul has also aimed several barbs at his rivals during debates for having come to him at some point to ask for money.

Trump tied Singer’s contribution to Rubio to Singer’s agenda of support for gay marriage and immigration reform. “If you look at Mr. Singer, you have to see where Mr. Singer is coming from and when you [do]…I think people are going to say ‘Whoa, I didn’t know that.’” Trump said at a recent news conference. “Look at Marco’s stance on illegal immigration. It’s really trouble for him. I don’t see how he can win.”

Another surprising GOP critic of the big money donations is former Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich had his 2012 presidential campaign kept afloat by millions in donations from Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate. But last year he summed up the effect of dollars from a few wealthy people on politics this way in an interview with National Journal:

“If you’re going to have an election process that radically favors billionaires and is discriminating against the middle class — which we now have — then billionaires are going to get a lot of attention [from politicians].”

Democrats, of course, are getting money from the wealthy too, but not nearly as much. That has left them more free to scream about the ruling that opened the door to the rich filling Republican campaign coffers.

“I will do everything I can to appoint Supreme Court justices who protect the right to vote and do not protect the right of billionaires to buy elections,” Hillary Clinton pledged in Iowa this summer.

Last week, Clinton denounced the wealthy Koch brothers, Charles and David, as “some of the biggest deck stackers you will find,” for their campaign contributions. She said they give money to protect “their corporate interest, the fossil fuel industry.”

Also last week, voters in Maine passed a referendum proposal supporting increased public financing of campaigns to counter the power of private political donations. In Seattle, voters similarly agreed to start public financing in local elections.

Editor’s Note: The voters may have been somewhat deluded when supporting a taxpayer funded election process thinking this will solve the problem of political influence and corruption when it will not. Williams, a nice man, is somewhat deluded as well trying to argue the point as if were the sane choice, when in reality it is the politician that is at fault here.

Populist anger at the billionaire donor class is a storm cloud about to burst.

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