The news that delivered the biggest jolt to the 2016 presidential campaign last week wasn’t anything the candidates said or did.
It was an offhand comment from a billionaire, David Koch, at a dinner of wealthy Republicans in New York.
“Scott Walker is terrific,” Koch told a reporter for the New York Observer. “He’s a tremendous candidate.”
The New York Times reported that Koch was essentially endorsing the Wisconsin governor as his favorite in the GOP race. It sounded as if the Koch primary, in which Republicans compete to unlock billions of dollars from a network of conservative donors, was over.
Until Koch walked it back, that is. “I am not endorsing or supporting any candidate for president at this point in time,” he said. Koch says he and his brother Charles Koch still intend to remain neutral in the GOP primaries – although they do intend to summon candidates to a round of auditions this summer.
That’s where the action is right now in the not-very-majestic process by which we are choosing our next president. The most important players aren’t the candidates; they’re the mega-donors. In American politics, money talks.
That’s always been true, of course. But this year, we’re reaching new lows: The Republican race has devolved into a battle among headstrong billionaires, each with a pet candidate.
David Koch has Walker. (For all his protestations of neutrality, Koch sounded pretty smitten.) Norman Braman, who owns 23 car dealerships, has Marco Rubio. Robert Mercer, a New York hedge-fund manager, has Ted Cruz. Foster Friess, an investment manager, has Rick Santorum. (Yes, Santorum is still in the running – thanks in large part to the generosity of Friess.)
The biggest mega-donor of them all, Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, is still playing hard to get. All the candidates, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, are courting him.
There’s something grotesque about a process that requires serious politicians to hover anxiously around a few donors who can make or break a campaign at whim.
And, no, this isn’t a rant about the Republican Party. I have no doubt that plenty of Democratic candidates would do pretty much the same thing. It just happens that there’s not much of a contest yet on the Democratic side this year – but a wide-open race on the GOP side, and that has brought the .01 percent out to play.
The race for big money is bigger this year than in previous cycles for another reason: Campaigns are still discovering how they can exploit the freedom from regulation that the U.S. Supreme Court has granted since its Citizens United decision in 2010.
Most of the new money is being funneled through single-candidate “super PACs”: fundraising committees set up to promote individual candidates. That was a new and experimental idea when President Obama and Mitt Romney first tried it in 2012, but now everybody has one. Cruz has four, each one directed by an individual mega-donor. Hillary Clinton has at least two.
It’s too late for significant changes this cycle. A constitutional amendment to reimpose contribution limits would take years to pass. Democrats have proposed legislation to increase disclosure and provide federal matching funds for small donations, but their bills have stalled. Republicans have said they’d support more disclosure if all contribution limits were abolished, but that proposal isn’t moving either.
If, however, voters demand change from the candidates, it’s just possible that 2016 could be remembered as the year the tide of money crested, instead of just another campaign that saw the dollars rise. Meanwhile, maybe we should ask for an interim measure. Instead of debates among the candidates, let’s go straight to the top – and ask for debates among their donors instead.
Doyle McManus writes for the Los Angeles Times.