An intriguing issue was raised in the Dec. 19 Democratic debate: Campaign donations from billionaires.
Or, should I say — faux issue?
In the past, I understood Bernie Sanders’ refusal to accept money from billionaires as symbolic of a larger message. In his world, billionaires should not exist. But Elizabeth Warren’s recent weaponization of the issue cast a new light on this leftish litmus test. Pete Buttigieg was right. This is a purity test of character, not policy.
If you make billionaires the “enemy,” then accepting money from them makes you complicit in their oligarchical ambitions. Accepting that donation proves you are corruptible, that you will bend to their will. A $2,800 contribution from a billionaire is bribery. How about $2,800 from a millionaire? OK? Or $2,800 from someone who makes a hundred thousand a year? What actually is the standard price for selling your political soul? Or is it simply the source of the $2,800?
At least Sanders has been consistent. His campaign even returned $470 from the wife of a billionaire. But that symbolism hides the current agenda. He criticized Joe Biden for accepting money from 40 billionaires. He told Buttigieg that he needed to compete for more, since Buttigieg only had contributions from 38 billionaires. Of course, if Cory Booker had been there, then Bernie could have shamed Joe and Pete for lagging behind Cory’s donations from 45 billionaires.
I suspect that if Bernie and Liz had combed Amy Klobuchar’s contributor list, they might have spotted a few billionaires and millionaires too. But Amy is not a threat to them, so her “corruption” (as well as Booker, et al) can be ignored. The appropriate term we might apply is “selective outrage.”
For Sanders and Warren, attacking the policies of Biden and Buttigieg is dry politics. It is intellectual, with pros and cons for the opposing positions. But politics, as we all know, is more than policy — it is also personality. To win you must appeal not only to the minds of voters, but also to their instincts. You must manipulate their visceral and emotional response to an issue. You must not only be right, your opponent must be wrong. And the error of your opponents must reflect a deeper failing in them, a moral failing. You must be more “pure” than they.
If I applaud Sanders for his consistency, although I disagree with his rationale, I extend no such leeway to Warren. Her motive in attacking Buttigieg, Biden and others, is not about a symbolic standard. From her, it is hypocritical posturing.
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In her 2012 Senate campaign, Warren had no problem collecting large donations from wealthy contributors at small elite parties. Most notable was an April 19, 2012 soiree at the New York penthouse of HBO executive Michael Fuchs, with a suggested “Sponsor” contribution of $5,000 and a “Guest” contribution of $2,500. If you just wanted to be a “Friend,” that cost you $1,000.
So now we have the 2012 “Penthouse Liz” up against the 2019 “Wine Cave Pete.”
From that campaign in 2012, and her subsequent reelection campaign of 2018 (against a far less formidable opponent), Warren amassed a war chest of over 10 million dollars that was used to jump-start her 2020 Presidential campaign.
Big money seemed to have not corrupted her in the past, but Buttigieg and Booker obviously do not have the moral spine, the political integrity, she has, so they must be shamed by their outreach to the rich now? They are duplicitous and malleable corporate dupes, regardless of the actual programs they are promoting, but she has a monopoly on the campaign finance high ground?
Of the serious issues that divide each of the Democratic candidates, accepting donations from the rich is not one of them; unless, of course, that donation helps your surging competitor.
Larry Baker is a writer in Iowa City.