Plutocrats have captured it all: How Sheldon Adelson shows the need for campaign finance reform

A billionaire extremist is buying his way to the top of the GOP. Thanks again, Citizens United!

Published September 9, 2015 9:03PM (EDT)

Sheldon Adelson      (Reuters/Siu Chiu)
Sheldon Adelson (Reuters/Siu Chiu)

If we were to keep a running tally of every way the Supreme Court’s conservative majority has weakened American democracy, we’d probably soon find the task to be overwhelming. And because there are so many examples to choose from, it’s unlikely that any two lists would be identical. You may see “dark money,” for example, as Justice Kennedy’s ugliest creation. But I’d adopt a different perspective; I’d put casino magnate and GOP mega-donor “Sheldon Adelson” at the very top of my list.

It’s not Adelson, specifically, who bothers me (though, even for a tycoon, he is hideous). What I resent instead is how, because of the Court, paying attention to this nasty extremist has become just another requirement of the active, engaged citizen. Because Adelson has tons of money — somewhere around $30 billion, according to Forbes — and, as he proved last cycle, by almost singlehandedly floating Newt Gingrich’s ludicrous presidential campaign, he’s willing to spend it.

There’s a certain kind of politics geek who will tell you not to worry about how money impacts a presidential election. These folks tend not to be as savvy as they think, but they have a point, to a limited extent. No amount of money in the world, for example, would have saved Mondale in ’84 or Dole in ’96. But in a new report from New York magazine’s Jason Zengerle, we can see how an unregulated system of campaign finance can give people like Adelson an effective veto on major U.S. policy.

The story, as Zengerle reports, is simple. For 2016, Adelson wants to spend bigger — and smarter — than he did in 2012. And he really only cares about two things: supporting the Israeli far-right, and opposing organized labor. As you might imagine, he is an utter zealot about both. (He even got mad at Gov. Christie for saying “occupied territories” in the midst of a comment that otherwise could’ve come from AIPAC.) So to win the “Adelson primary,” you’ll have to sound like a radical Israeli ethno-nationalist.

Increasingly, that is not a problem for the Republican Party’s presidential contenders. Except for Mike Huckabee, no one has yet to go so far as Gingrich and say Palestinians are “invented”; but the GOP’s support for Likud and Prime Minister Netanyahu has otherwise been lockstep. Yet despite Adelson’s claims of wanting to spend his money wisely, he hasn’t signed-up with Jeb Bush’s campaign. And Trump notwithstanding, most political insiders still expect the primary to end with another Bush win.

What explains the disconnect? According to Zengerle, the problem isn’t that Bush doesn’t come off as a committed Likudnik. The problem is that he still counts former Secretary of State James Baker — who, during the George H.W. Bush years, got into some heated battles with the Israeli right — as an advisor and friend. And when he found out that Baker was going to speak to the center-left pro-Israel group J Street (which apparently “might as well be Hezbollah”), Adelson flipped.

Because he refused to go after Baker,  Bush was reportedly “dead” to Adelson. But as you may have noticed, Jeb!’s campaign hasn’t been going so great. So, according to Zengerle, he decided “to make amends.” He did this in two ways. First, he ignored public opinion and described his brother, George W., as his most influential advisor regarding the Middle East. Second, and more importantly, he urged Republicans supportive of President Obama’s nuclear accord with Iran to “keep their support private.”

That may seem like politics as usual, but it’s not. Politics as usual would be one politician changing their behavior please a donor. This, on the other hand, is the leader of the GOP establishment letting a billionaire’s neuroses decide a momentous policy question. It’s giving neoconservatives a near-monopoly on GOP foreign policy, too. And it’s not due to the public’s will or Bush’s personal conviction. It’s because that’s the way an aged crank, who dreams of preemptive nuclear strikes on Tehran, demands it.

Which leaves the other 320 or so million Americans in an uncomfortable position. As things stand today, if a presidential candidate has to choose between voters and Adelson — well, the former is so irrelevant, they might as well not exist. Sure, campaign finance reforms along the lines proposed this week by Hillary Clinton would help. But the chances against her turning that (details-deficient) plan into a reality are about as high as Adelson’s net-worth.

So until we get a new Supreme Court — or until Lawrence Lessig becomes the political supernova nobody is expecting — if you want to know current GOP policy regarding the Middle East, you’ll have little choice but to immerse yourself in the noxious world of Sheldon Adelson.

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By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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