For months, Tom Steyer has been an extremely expensive sideshow in the 2020 race. The former hedge fund manager raised $49 million and spent $47 million of it, mostly on ads—though perhaps “raised” is the wrong word, since about 96 percent of that haul came from the billionaire candidate himself. His strategy of making it rain on the Democratic electorate allowed him to eke out a couple percentage points in the polls and make the debate stage last month, but he’s struggled to make further headway, which is perhaps why one of his aides in Iowa was offering to literally buy endorsements from influential politicians there, according to an Associated Press report.
The aide, a former Iowa elected official named Pat Murphy, reportedly offered some of Steyer’s campaign cash to Tom Courtney, a candidate for state senate who told the AP the indecent proposal “left a bad taste in my mouth.” Steyer’s team said that the campaign would never trade money for endorsements and “anyone who does is not speaking for the campaign or does not know our policy.” (This is the Steyer campaign’s second mini-scandal of the week: another aide resigned after being accused of stealing Kamala Harris’s volunteer data.)
As the AP notes, if Steyer did donate to a candidate’s campaign in exchange for an endorsement, it would be legal so long as it is disclosed. Insofar as it’s a bad look for Steyer’s campaign, it’s because just that kind of transaction is ever so slightly, just barely declasse in a political environment where money can buy votes, just not directly. It’s not a crime, in other words, it’s just a bit of clumsiness from a campaign that has money but nothing else.
As Steyer admitted recently, he’s “not someone who is known across the United States,” meaning he’s rich but not famous. Over the past year he’s tried to literally buy the kind of fame that makes one a viable presidential candidate. First that took the form of Need to Impeach, a Super PAC that has been churning out anti-Trump commercials and has spent more than $25 million since 2018, most of it from Steyer’s own pockets. That evolved into a self-funded presidential effort that has consumed even more of his money.
In his self-righteousness and outsized ego, Steyer resembles a resistance grifter, but the only one he’s really grifting is himself. The problem for Democrats is that every dime he spends on his pet causes could be spent on candidates who have a chance to beat Republicans. And though Steyer has claimed that House Democrats’ recent move to launch a presidential impeachment inquiry has validated his impeachment crusade, he’s still spending tens of millions on a vanity campaign with essentially no chance of succeeding. Unlike Andrew Yang, another nonpolitician making a longshot presidential bid, Steyer doesn’t even have a signature issue to distinguish himself from the field; his views that we need to fight inequality, climate change, and Donald Trump are standard among nearly all other wealthy California liberals.
So far, Steyer has proven that it is possible to buy a presidential campaign, or at least something that looks like one. But as Pat Murphy’s bungled offer of money for political support shows, you can’t buy everything.
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