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The Billionaires’ Long Game

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Posted on Dec 12, 2012
Flickr/Kim

By Robert Reich

This post originally ran on Robert Reich’s Web page, www.robertreich.org.

I keep hearing that the billionaires and big corporations that poured all that money into the 2012 election learned their lesson. They lost their shirts and won’t do it again.

Don’t believe that for an instant.

It’s true their political investments didn’t exactly pay off this time around.

“Right now there is stunned disbelief that Republicans fared so poorly after all the money they invested,” said Brent Bozell, president of For America, an Alexandria-based nonprofit that advocates for Christian values in politics.

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“Congrats to @KarlRove on blowing $400 million this cycle,” Donald Trump tweeted. “Every race @CrossroadsGPS ran ads in, the Republicans lost. What a waste of money.”

Rove’s two giant political funds — American Crossroads (a Super PAC) and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies (a so-called nonprofit “social welfare organization” that doesn’t have to report its donors) — backed Mitt Romney with $127 million spent on more than 82,000 television spots. Rove’s groups spent another $51 million on House and Senate races. Ten of the 12 Senate candidates they supported lost.

The return on investment for American Crossroads donors turned out to be just 1 percent, according to any analysis by the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based group that advocates for open government.

Among Rove’s investors was Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire who owns the Las Vegas Sands Corporation.

Adelson invested more than $100 million in the election, mostly on Republicans who lost – including $20 million that went to Romney’s super PAC “Restore Our Future,” $15 million to another super PAC that almost single-handedly kept Newt Gingrich’s Republican primary campaign going, and about $50 million to nonprofit Republican fronts such as Rove’s Crossroads GPS.

Adelson wasn’t alone, of course. Texas industrialist Harold Simmons invested $26.9 million; Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts invested close to $13 million; a network organized by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch invested $400 million.

But if you think these losses mean the end of high-stakes political investing, you don’t know how these people work.

You see, if and when they eventually win, these billionaires will clean up. Their taxes will plummet, many of laws constraining their profits (such environmental laws preventing the Koch brothers from more depredations, and the anti-bribery Foreign Corrupt Practices Act that Adelson is being investigated for violating) will disappear, and what’s left of labor unions will no longer intrude on their bottom lines.

And they have enough dough to keep betting until they eventually win. That’s what it means to be a billionaire political investor: You’re able to keep playing the odds until you get the golden ring.

Looking ahead, Adelson tells the Wall Street Journal he’s ready to double his 2012 investment next time around. “I happen to be in a unique business where winning and losing is the basis of the entire business,” he says, “so I don’t cry when I lose. There’s always a new hand coming up.” He isn’t looking back at his losses. “I know in the long run we’re going to win.”

Exactly. Adelson, Simmons, the Koch brothers, and other billionaires will keep pouring in as much money as it takes to eventually win — unless they’re stopped. And procurers like Karl Rove will make sure they’re at the gaming table.

Relative to their net worth, the billionaire investors have been playing for a pittance. Forbes magazine estimates Adelson’s net worth at $21.5 billion. His Las Vegas Sands Corporation just approved a special dividend paying him about $1.2 billion this year, ahead of any possible tax increases that might emerge from congressional budget negotiations.

In the meantime, he and other billionaire political investors are profiting from their reputations as high-stakes players.

Adelson says he has many friends in Washington, “but the reasons aren’t my good looks and charm. It’s my pocket personality,” referring to his political investments. And his determination to keep playing the odds ensures his Washington friends will continue to pay attention.

POLITICO reports Adelson recently met with three GOP governors said to be eying the 2016 presidential race.

This week he met separately with House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (the Adelsons invested $10 million in super PACs affiliated with Boehner and Cantor), possibly to discuss changes to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

As income and wealth become ever more concentrated in America, the nation’s billionaire political investors will invest even more.

A record $6 billion was spent on the 2012 campaign, and outside groups poured $1.3 billion into political races, according to data from the Federal Election Commission and the Center for Responsive Politics.

That’s why Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission has to be reversed – either by a Supreme Court that becomes aware of the poison it’s unleashed into our democracy, or by constitutional amendment.

It’s also why we need full disclosure of who contributes what to whom.

And public financing that matches public money to contributions from small donors.

Most fundamentally, it’s why America’s widening inequality must be reversed.

Robert B. Reich, chancellor’s professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, was secretary of labor in the Clinton administration. Time magazine named him one of the 10 most effective Cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including the best-sellers “Aftershock” and “The Work of Nations.” His latest, “Beyond Outrage,” is now out in paperback. He is also a founding editor of The American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.


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