Tom Steyer is a billionaire from San Francisco who comes bearing tantalising gifts for American progressives.
The first is a confetti of cash to fight elections and ballot measures across the country, a bounty to counter the Koch brothers ’ funding of conservative candidates and causes and possibly set the US on a new, leftwing course.
The other is an exhilarating message that progressives can confront, provoke, alienate and enrage Republicans, they can call them liars, moral reprobates, corporate shills and climate wreckers, they can denounce Trump administration policies as cruel and evil and hound and shame White House officials and, oh bliss, impeach the president. They can do all this – and win power.
“Are we afraid to tell the truth because it might piss someone off? No.” A thousand times no, says Steyer, thumping the table during a recent interview in Los Angeles. It is time to “retake” the United States. “We’re trying to do something to protect the country, protect the democracy, protect the people. This is a fight between right and wrong and I don’t see why people want to sweep that under the rug.”
The former hedge fund manager, by some estimates the biggest individual spender in American electoral politics, assails not just Republicans but those Democrats who, in his view, lack the guts or brains to fight for what is right. “They’re worried about pissing off Republicans. They want to create a civil atmosphere where there’s a possibility of civil discourse and compromise. Do you see any civil discourse and compromise from the Republicans? Or are they lying for money and putting us all at risk?”
Steyer, a trim 61-year-old with a voice of gravel, is speaking over lunch in a downtown cafe. He doesn’t look like a plutocratic insurgent. He doesn’t even look rich. The slightly wrinkled suit and scuffed brogues could be that of a school principal. He slugs celery soup and potato stew from plastic containers smuggled into the cafe. Later he dutifully plops them in the recycling bin.
Only a colourful, beaded belt – a memento from Africa – and the presence of two media aides hint that here sits a tycoon worth a reported $1.6bn. That and Steyer’s platinum-plated confidence that a progressive counter-attack steered by his money and guidance can help save the republic. “This is a fight for the soul of America. We’re going to act to protect the American people and the constitution whether you like it or not.”
Steyer is unfamiliar to most Americans – that may soon change – but has been a serious political player since becoming an environmentalist and spending $90m backing Democrats in 2016. He is doling out fresh munificence in advance of November’s midterm elections, though not to national Democratic party committees in protest at the lack of an immigration deal to protect Dreamers.
His Super Pac, NextGen America, with about 100 employees in its San Francisco headquarters and another 400 spread across with US, champions climate solutions, immigrant rights, social justice and healthcare by backing like-minded candidates in legislative and gubernatorial contests stretching from Arizona to New Hampshire, Michigan to Florida. It has spent $32m on youth organising, registration and turnout efforts this year.
Many dollars flow into low-profile races, so-called “down-ballot” elections, said Carolyn Fiddler, political editor of the Daily Kos. “It’s the less sexy side of the work he’s doing but it’s what I think will pay dividends in the long run.” Successful candidates tend to move on to higher office, she said. “And these folks will draw congressional lines in a few years. Down-ballot money is money well spent. The Republicans figured this out a long time ago.”
Steyer’s splurge achieved mixed results in 2016 – Hillary Clinton and a host of other Democratic candidates in local races lost and climate change ranked low in voters’ concerns. However, Steyer claimed success in targeting millennial voters, with turnout surging about a quarter in 10 of 12 targeted battleground precincts.
It was an arguably meagre return on investment but he thinks the focus on field work, including voter contacts, voter mobilisation initiatives, concerts and other millennial-friendly tactics can be replicated and seed future victories.
“He has the resources and the instincts and the people around him to make a real impact,” said Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic campaigner and politics professor. “He can make a major contribution to a Democratic victory – if that’s what he wants.”
So after years of GOP mega-donors raining money on conservatives the Democrats finally have their own Croesus. There’s a catch.
Steyer is also funding an impeachment drive against Trump, a $40m blitz of town hall meetings and televised ads, fronted by Steyer, to banish Trump from the White House. The campaign has gathered constitutional lawyers, mental health professionals and security analysts who say the president has obstructed justice, taken money from foreign governments and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Its petition, Need to Impeach, has 5.4m signatures.
When conversation turns to the I-word, Steyer, a kinetic presence, becomes even more animated. He calls Trump lawless, unqualified, dangerous. Separating immigrant families is not impeachable but violates American values, he says. “If you’re the kind of person who is willing to break the law, who acts against the interests of the American people then it’s going to show up in other things that are horrible, like torturing little kids.”
Impeachment, he says, is a matter of justice. “We’re telling the truth, an important truth.” Using children as “hostages” to pressure parents to renounce asylum requests is immoral, he says. “I don’t know what’s in someone’s heart – I don’t know if Mr Trump is evil. Are those actions evil? Definitely.”
Mention the public shaming of White House officials such as Sarah Sanders and Stephen Miller, a controversial tactic which has divided Democrats, and a Cheshire grin seeps across Steyer’s face. “Jeez, that’s too bad.”
He elaborates. “Let’s assume that you’re torturing children, then you come over for a drink at the local pub? Not with me. You don’t get polite discourse when you’re a torturer.” Ditto climate-change sceptics who shill for fossil fuel companies. “These guys want a pass to make millions of dollars and put the world at risk. Do you have a problem with that? Yeah, I have a problem with that. Do you want to lie to my face and put everyone at risk, and then have a cocktail, really?” He stretches his arm and gives the middle finger. “Not with me.”
Such bluntness thrills progressives. They flock to Steyer’s town hall meetings – a 30-city tour, this week Boston and Bow, New Hampshire; next week San Antonio, Texas – to pepper questions. Can Trump really be impeached? How? When?
Analysts dunk cold water over the idea. Even if Robert Mueller’s investigation produces strong evidence – obstruction of justice, say, or collusion with Russia – and even if Democrats win control of Congress, and even if some Republicans turn against Trump, it is difficult to envisage two-thirds of senators finding Trump guilty of treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours.
Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and other Democratic leaders downplay impeachment talk, fearing the party will look vengeful, alienate swing voters and rally the president’s base – a folly Republicans suffered when they impeached Bill Clinton, only to see him acquitted (in the Senate) and politically revived. Under this scenario Steyer is not a saviour but a Pied Piper leading millennial followers to oblivion.
“Impeachment fires up partisans on both sides, but on balance, it hurts Democrats more than it helps,” said Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College. “Unless and until Mueller reveals evidence of criminal behaviour by Trump, many Americans will be reluctant to overturn the results of an election.”
Jon Favreau, a former Obama speechwriter turned podcaster, considers impeachment an unfortunate but not fatal distraction. “I think Tom Steyer and his organisation are doing incredibly productive work in the field. I wish they would stick to that.”
Republicans, for their part, treat impeachment talk as Christmas come early.
“Wacky & totally unhinged Tom Steyer, who has been fighting me and my Make America Great Again agenda from beginning, never wins elections!” Trump tweeted. GOP allies depict Steyer as their ideal foil – a clueless, arrogant California liberal.
Asked about the risk of backlash, the former Wall Street titan shifts in his seat. Having made a fortune crunching data and anticipating market gyrations he is sure he is right about this and that Democratic leaders, Trump, the pundits and other detractors are wrong.
“People keep saying you’re going to inflame the Republican base and they’re going to turn out. They’re already turning out. My question is, where is the Democratic base? They haven’t been turning out for the past 10 years. And look at the result.” Republicans dominate state, federal and judicial authority. “So you’re telling me, let’s do more of that. Really? That’s your point?”
Democrats in other words have nothing to lose and everything to gain by revving the grassroots with the “truth”. Steyer uses the word 14 times in the interview.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former svengali, credits Steyer with tapping burgeoning populist sentiment on the left, a prelude to Tea Party-like rebellion. Steyer shrugs this off, saying moderate and progressive Democrats are arguing about incremental versus transformational change. “Struggle is by definition sometimes messy … and that’s OK.”
Here is a puzzle: Steyer is an overachiever. The married father of four thrived at elite institutions – Yale, Stanford, Goldman Sachs – before turning Farallon Capital into the world’s fourth-largest hedge fund. He exercises two hours a day. Formidable discipline, an analytical brain, used to winning – so why now gallop around on an impeachment crusade that many allies consider quixotic, counter-productive and doomed?
One answer: maybe he’s right. Maybe this era of upended conventional wisdom and hyper-tribalism will vindicate his bet on animating progressives and flipping the bird at Republicans, handing Congress to the Democrats and making impeachment viable.
Or maybe the crusade has another goal – President Tom Steyer.
He considered running for governor in California and now seems to be trialling a potential run for the White House. Step one, build a grassroots network and court the Democratic base with a signature topic that plasters you across television. In May he brought the impeachment roadshow to Iowa, a key primary battleground.
David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s former adviser, has called the campaign a dangerous “vanity project” that could normalise impeachment as a political tool.
In the interview Steyer showed a politician’s skill in asking and answering his own questions and parrying awkward questions with polished anecdotes. Talking about coal, he stressed he would help miners transition to other work – avoiding Hillary Clinton’s gaffe about putting miners out of business.
He lauds the ordinary folks he meets on the road. “Patriotric Americans talking about how to retake the country – it’s fantastic, it’s ridiculously enjoyable.” He can sound funny and honest about his wealth. “Do people always say yes to me? If only.” Patronage, he adds, has a downside. “It’s horrible, just for your information, to have people always asking you for money.”
When he rails at stagnant wages amid soaring profits he channels Bernie Sanders. “Republicans have led the takeover of America by corporations. Ninety-five percent of the population is getting screwed.”
So, is Steyer going to declare his run for president in this interview?
A long, loud guffaw, then he hedges. “We don’t know what’s going to happen on November 6. I will opine that neither does anybody else. It could be an affirmation of Trump. It could be a complete rejection of Trump.”
News happens so fast that any decision about 2020 must wait till after the midterms. “It’s mind-blowing what’s happened [just] in the last two days. And it’s every week. The top of my head is coming off. And four months, of this? Oh my God. How can you make a plan until you know what the facts are?”
An open treasure chest, a populist, polarising message and one of the biggest grassroots movements in the US – the question for progressives is whether to embrace or beware the Californian bearing gifts.
This article provided by NewsEdge.