In the myopic world of American partisan politics, Democrats are attacking Mitt Romney for daring to take money from Sheldon Adelson, the casino king who organized last week’s fifty-thousand-dollars-a-pop Jerusalem fundraiser and has pumped over ten million dollars from his own pocket into the presumptive Republican nominee’s campaign. But the Romney critics protest too much. “Everyone loves a witch hunt as long as it''s someone else''s witch being hunted,” says the contemporary novelist and prominent ex-Mormon Walter Kirn. These same Democrats are silent when big wigs pump big money into their own favorite candidates’ campaigns.
The attacks on the Romney-Adelson alliance emphasize three major objections. First, Columbia University’s Thomas Edsall wondered in the New York Times this week how Romney, a devout Mormon whose religion abhors gambling, could take money earned from gamblers. Romney should “tell us how he reconciles the values he says he stands for with the basis on which Adelson’s fortune is built,” Edsall preached. Next, Edsall and others have snickered that Romney should be embarrassed to take so much money from Adelson, considering that this billionaire first prolonged Romney’s primary agony by pumping so much money into Newt Gingrich’s campaign. Finally, the huge amount of money Adelson is spending offends critics, as they scream about plutocrats distorting our politics.
True, in an ideal world, only virtuous endeavors would earn money and the only donors would be saints. In this paradise, alliances would never shift, politicians would always be consistent, and money would be irrelevant to American politics -- rather than its lifeblood. But in the real world, donations to very honorable causes often flow in from the rough and tumble universe of business; realists support different candidates as a broad political field narrows; and the American political system has become exceedingly dependent on major fundraisers.
Of course, the dilemmas about money and politics are not new. Decades ago the New Deal humorist Will Rogers joked that “a fool and his money are soon elected,” while the often witty, too frequently twisted novelist and commentator Gore Vidal, who died this week, defined a democracy as “a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.”
Since Andrew Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1828 -- probably the first million-dollar-campaign in American history -- so much money has been invested in elections because so much rides on them. And in a freedom-oriented country like the United States, with ironclad constitutional guarantees protecting free speech, it has been – and will continue to be – difficult to keep money out of politics, just like it proved impossible to keep the Olympics pure from the taint of lucre or commercialism.
The hypocrisy in this debate has more levels than a seven-layer cake. Four years ago, as Republicans screamed about George Soros’s ill-gotten gains, as they protested that billionaire’s outsized impact on the 2008 campaign, few Democrats agreed – or spoke up. And even this year, as Barack Obama seeks to raise funds for what could be the first billion-dollar presidential re-election campaign, I have heard of no restrictions on money coming from casino owners, liquor barons, cigarette manufacturers, producers of Hollywood filth, hedge fund managers, overcharging lawyers, or Wall Street Bankers.
Let’s face it, to most of his critics, Sheldon Adelson’s great crime is supporting the wrong guy, Mitt Romney rather than Barack Obama. Billionaires who support your candidate are altruists doing their civic duty; billionaires who support your opponent are power-hungry bums throwing their financial weight around. The rules stink, but Soros and Adelson have the right to play by those rules, and we usually honor wealthy people who divert some of their resources from personal indulgence to public service.
I confess, I have a soft spot in my heart for Sheldon Adelson. We have never had a real conversation, but as chairman of the Taglit-Birthright Israel international education committee and as a Jewish citizen, I admire his extraordinary generosity in contributing tens of millions to Taglit, financing the first Israel trips of thousands of young Jews, aged 18 to 26 by now. I have heard him speak movingly about his own father’s inability to make it to Israel because he was too poor, and the thrill Adelson has in telling so many young people, “Welcome to Israel.” Other donations he and his wife Dr. Miriam Adelson have made, including to Yad Vashem and their local Las Vegas Jewish community, have impressed and inspired me and many others.
It is also clear to me that Mitt Romney did not support Israel, recognize Jerusalem as the country’s capital, endorse a strong, defiant stance against Iran, or question the economic impact of growing up in a sexist, repressive, authoritarian, anti-capitalist Palestinian culture, because he was following the money. In fact, it seems that Adelson’s money followed the politicians’ lead. The Adelson donation reflects a convergence of Romney’s and Adelson’s views, not any kind of deviation by Mitt Romney of any core principles.
The American democracy which gave the world the phrase “all men are created equal” should not be swayed by individuals who can give presidential candidates a bundle. But democracies reflect the will of the people and the nature of the culture. The American people have not been sufficiently outraged by this perennial problem to tackle the constitutional or political restrictions. Moreover, the well-financed candidate does not always win, as Mitt Romney is currently learning when assessing public opinion polls.
It is unfair to caricature Sheldon Adelson as a nefarious figure seducing candidates and the American people. Just the opposite. We should praise him as a role model, re-investing some of the money he has made back in his community, his highest ideals, and his country.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism,” will be published in the fall.