Once again, there’s a new “hot” candidate. This time it’s billionaire Tom Steyer, who hit double digits in new Fox News polls in Nevada and South Carolina, thereby qualifying him for Tuesday’s CNN/Des Moines Register presidential debate — the last debate before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses.
Of course, other surveys show Steyer in the low-to-middle single digits in the first two states with Democratic contests, Iowa and New Hampshire, and weak showings in those two states could affect his standing in the subsequent state contests.
The reason the Democratic former hedge fund founder is anywhere in any poll on this planet is that he has spent millions of dollars in advertising, first to promote the impeachment of President Donald Trump and now his own candidacy for the 2020 Democratic nomination.
Steyer has so far spent more money on his campaign than all of the other candidates combined except for Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who like Steyer is trying to buy the Democratic nomination.
If the Fox News numbers in Nevada and South Carolina are correct, they would at the very least suggest that Steyer could be mucking up the Democratic contest, adding yet another dose of uncertainty to an already uncertain race.
Some Democrats are still looking for a perfect candidate to defeat Trump, and a billionaire liberal businessman who says the entire system is “broken” might be appealing to some.
But, of course, there is plenty of reason to believe that this Steyer boomlet isn’t very meaningful and that if and when Democrats look at him at greater length, they’ll find him unappealing as the party’s standard-bearer in November.
Up to this point, the Democratic front-runners have ignored Steyer, but if they see him as a real factor in the race, he’ll get much more attention from them — and from the national media, in general, and the Iowa debate moderators, in particular.
Where did he get all his money? What businesses and companies did he invest in?
For a party that seems uncomfortable with millionaires and billionaires, Steyer would be a strange choice.
Yes, he can say that he has spent his money for good causes and to fix the system, but he is still a billionaire who is trying to buy the nomination.
Like Trump, Steyer thinks that government is broken and that only a radical remake of the country — its laws and the Constitution — will make the system open to the people.
One of Steyer’s wackier proposals involves his support for term limits. “You and I both know we need term limits … that Congress shouldn’t be a lifetime appointment,” he says in one TV spot that he rolled out in November to air in the four February states. “But members of Congress — and the corporations who’ve bought our democracy — hate term limits. Too bad.”
Much like Trump, who throws words around as if they have no fixed meaning, Steyer must know that members of Congress aren’t “appointed” and that they don’t serve for a lifetime, unless the voters continue to reelect them every two or six years, depending on the chamber.
They certainly don’t have a “lifetime appointment,” the way federal judges do. Moreover, where is the evidence that corporations “hate term limits?”
One of the reasons why limiting terms is such a bad idea — it was bad when conservatives promoted them as a way to create more open seats when they were in the minority, and it is a bad idea now that a liberal Democratic hopeful is proposing them — is that term limits would empower unelected Hill staffers and lobbyists, who would be the only people to understand the details of legislation and have policy expertise.
House members wouldn’t be in Congress long enough to become experts in most matters of public policy.
Steyer reminds me a lot of Trump. He’s never held elective office but thinks that he is his party’s — and the country’s — political savior.
Everything is broken. Everything is corrupt. Let’s throw everything out and start over. Representative government? Forget it. Let’s have a national referendum on issues (thereby empowering those who can dominate the airwaves during the national discussion leading up to the referendum).
From a purely handicapping point of view, I’m skeptical that Steyer has much staying power in the race. His anti-establishment, liberal message of the evils of corporations will resonate with some, but many of those Democrats already have their favorites (such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren).
And once the media and the other Democrats turn their fire on Steyer — if they ever do — he’ll have to spend time on the defensive answering questions. That’s not an ideal situation for a billionaire former hedge fund founder running for the Democratic nomination.
Changes in key electoral groups between 2016 and 2019 also present problems for Trump. As the midterms showed — and polling conducted since then has confirmed — he has lost ground with younger voters, college-educated whites, suburbanites and especially white women with a college degree.
Finally, Trump’s prospects depend to a considerable extent on the Democrats — on whom they nominate, how united they are and how energized the party’s constituencies are. Some Democratic tickets would have a better chance of mobilizing the party base and reaching out to swing voters than others. In other words, candidates and campaigns still matter.
Trump’s path to a second term rests on larger losses in the popular vote and narrower victories in a few states with crucial electoral votes. That is a possible scenario, but hardly one that should leave Republicans brimming with confidence.
The president has damaged himself by alienating large chunks of the country, and his behavior over the next year is likely to give Democrats more ammunition to use against him. The only question is whether the Democrats will find a nominee who can take advantage of Trump’s fundamental weaknesses.
Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on January 13, 2020.