The first primary of the 2016 GOP nominating process was held last weekend, the “Sheldon Adelson primary.” Officially a meeting of the republican Jewish Conference, the real purpose of the weekend’s meetings was for Republican presidential wannabes to fly to Las Vegas and kiss the plutocrat’s ring, hoping that he will shower them with cash in their bid for the White House. Everything about the weekend was icky and worse than icky.
Mr. Adelson is, of course, entitled to spend his money on anything he wishes. In 2012, he single handedly kept the campaign of former Speaker Newt Gingrich afloat, spending more than $20 million on a SuperPAC to support his candidacy. I wish he had spent $25 million. It would not have made a difference. Gingrich, the smartest of the candidates last time, was nonetheless unlikely to catch fire with a Republican base that did not warm to tales of bipartisan cooperation with President Bill Clinton during Gingrich’s speakership.
The influence of money in politics has not been so brazen since John D. Rockefeller teamed up with Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan to defeat William Jennings Bryan and elect William McKinley president in 1896. That influence is corrupting in every way and it holds the potential to backfire, and backfire badly, on those who spend it and, even more, on those who take it. No one wants a president who is beholden to a particular rich man with a particular agenda, except Mr. Adelson. That is exactly what he wants.
Again, Adelson is entitled to do what he wants with his cash, but do not these would-be presidents see the danger in their fawning over him and his money? Nothing better for appearing conscious of the concerns of average men and women than taking a private jet to Vegas, staying and dining at the casino of a man who makes more in one day from his casinos in Macao than most of us will make in our lifetime, and groveling before him as if he were a god. I do not see much in this scenario to excite the hearts of the evangelical base of the GOP, do you? But, trek to Vegas they did – Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (delighted to be in a state where he has not control over bridge traffic), Ohio Governor John Kasich, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, all made the trip. I was not surprised about Walker and Christie, but I was disappointed in Kasich and Bush. Kasich is a man who showed his courage in standing up to the Tea Party base and his GOP-dominated legislature to push for the expansion of Medicaid in his state under the Affordable Care Act. And, Jeb Bush has always seemed like the best of the Bush bunch.
Mr. Adelson and I have little in common except one thing: We are both deeply committed to, and concerned about, the security of the state of Israel. There have been times in the history of the Jews when they needed to take their allies where they could find them. But, I worry that Adelson will tarnish and harm America’s commitment to Israel. Chris Christie made the mistake of referring to the “occupied territories” in his talk in Vegas, and he quickly had to apologize. For what? What should he have said? The territory of the West Bank is occupied and that occupation has been the worst thing that has happened to Israel in her short modern history. And, before the Israeli-haters out there get too excited, here is a quick test: What did we call this region before 1967? We did not call it Palestine. We called it Jordan. The Arab kingdom had its own occupation, did it not, and for the same reason that Israel has kept its occupation: The fear of chaos and violence if the occupation were to end. But, I digress. I want all presidential candidates to support Israel. But, not because Sheldon Adelson said so. I want them to familiarize themselves with the actual security concerns of Israel, and with the shared values and approaches to civilized, political life that we and the Israelis share. I want them, too, like all good friends, to be willing to criticize when you think your friend is messing up. Alas, given the allure of Adelson’s cash, we can expect no such deep thinking. Candidates are busy. If it is enough to refer to “Judea and Samaria” to get that cash flowing, why bother learning about Israel?
Mr. Adelson’s other political concerns are not mine. He is deeply opposed to online gaming, for obvious reasons, and he is deeply opposed to unions. If I owned a casino, I suppose I would be opposed to online gaming too, but it is not the kind of issue most people will base their vote for president on, is it? And, Adelson’s opposition to unions is likely to earn his beloved Israel more enemies among working people and no matter how much he spends, over time, the will of the people in a democracy counts for more than all the cash in the world. His opposition to unions also betrays the Jewish community’s traditional support for organized labor in this country.
The Adelson primary is most offensive however because it offends our sense of democracy. Traditionally, democracy is contrasted with monarchy and aristocracy, but the Adelson threat to democracy is different from either one, both of which rely on the accident of birth. I recall something Chesterton once said about the best defense of the House of Lords, and a defense its occupants seemed reluctant to employ, was that in the last analysis, it was the House of Lords, not the House of Commons, that represented the common man. The House of Commons is filled with clever men who strove to attain the object of their ambition, and succeeded. The House of Lords is filled with all sorts of men, who got there by complete accident. Adelson was not born to anoint the GOP candidate. He is not Samuel. He, too, is a striver, a very successful one, and he is using his money not to create an aristocracy but to corrupt our democracy. It is shameful of him to attempt it but it is yet more shameful that these presidential aspirants willingly took part. Icky, and worse than icky. If our country does not find a way, and there is no easy way, to restrain the influence of money in politics, we risk creating an emotional tinderbox among those who feel disenfranchised and that is very dangerous to any democracy.