Get ready for another magical night in American politics. Yes, the fourth Republican Presidential Second Place Debate is tonight, broadcast by an obscure cable channel called News Nation. The whole country is crackling with excitement at the prospect of watching the last four standing, Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Ron Desantis, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, going mano-a-mano once again.
I’m kidding of course. Actually, these debates have become the most boring political ritual in American history. The presidential race may be heating up and the stakes could not be higher but these events cannot wind down too soon. Their only purpose is to help the GOP base figure out who might be an adequate replacement if Donald Trump keels over at the Mar-a-Lago omelet bar one Sunday and I’m not sure most Republican voters really care who that might be.
DeSantis’ previous position as first runner-up has been usurped by Haley, who is still riding the little boomlet that has pundits declaring that she is “surging” in Iowa and New Hampshire. The truth is that she’s pulled even with DeSantis for second place in the first and overtaken him for second in New Hampshire. That might mean something if it weren’t for the fact that Trump is leading both of them by nearly 30 points in Iowa and is leading Haley by 26 points in New Hampshire. (DeSantis has dropped to fourth there.) Nationally, Trump leads by nearly 50 points. So this Haley surge is reminiscent of past forgettable moments like when Newt Gingrich briefly took the lead in the GOP primary in 2012.
What is significant about the Haley boomlet isn’t this minuscule surge in her polling, it’s the massive surge in her donations from billionaires. It’s not just the Koch network that garnered huge headlines when it was announced that its Americans for Prosperity Action fund was endorsing her for president after laying out of presidential politics for some time. Haley attended a fundraiser in New York with top Wall Street financiers on Monday and raised a whopping $500,000 in one fell swoop.
CNBC reported that the event was held at the “luxurious Upper West Side penthouse of former Facebook executive Campbell Brown and her husband Dan Senor, chief public affairs officer at hedge fund Elliot Investment Management” which was founded by GOP megadonor Paul Singer. (According to Theodore Schliefer of Puck News, everyone was slightly disappointed that Singer himself was not in attendance because everyone on Wall St. is waiting on tenterhooks to see who he has decided to back.) But, among those who were there were:
Cliff Asness, a co-founder of investment firm AQR Capital Management, Kristin Lemkau, CEO of JPMorgan Chase’s wealth management division, Robert Rosenkranz, head of Delphi Capital Management and Ray Chambers, a philanthropist who once had a stake in the NHL’s New Jersey Devils were all spotted.
CNBC notes that Lemkau showed up just days after her boss, Jamie Dimon, exhorted people to back Haley at a conference hosted by The New York Times’ DealBook franchise. Dimon put it like this:
“Even if you’re a very liberal Democrat, I urge you, help Nikki Haley, too. Get a choice on the Republican side that might be better than [Donald] Trump,”
There is at least one liberal Democrat who stepped up early to help Haley in order to stop Donald Trump: Reid Hoffman, the billionaire co-founder of LinkedIn, who has funded several causes in opposition to Trump. But he’s a rarity. Liberal donors would generally rather spend their money on Democrats than Republicans.
The question is why in the world are these rich Republican donors suddenly backing Haley so strongly when they are very unlikely to get much of anything out of it? As Pucks‘ Schleifer observed:
[P]lenty of the people donating six or seven figures to Haley or DeSantis at this point don’t reasonably expect their candidate to win, a phenomenon I’ve never experienced before. The dominant feeling among major donors is a sense of apathy — that this is Trump’s race to lose, to say the least.
What is she doing that has them so enthralled that they are throwing away their money on her doomed campaign? The easy answer is that these people all have too much money, so these millions are just pocket change to them anyway and can take a flyer. If there’s ever been a better reason to raise their taxes to better fund the government, I’ve never seen it. And that may hold the real answer to the question of why they are now looking at Nikki Haley.
As you’ll recall, in the last debate Haley broke dramatically with Donald Trump by declaring that “any candidate that tells you they’re not going to go after Social Security and Medicare is not being serious.” She didn’t sugar coat it with the usual euphemisms like “we need to reform entitlements” and she’s made it clear that she not only wants to raise the retirement age, she also wants to reduce benefits for current beneficiaries by changing the cost of living formula. None of that is new for the pre-Trump GOP, but it’s been off the table since he took office.
In fact, one of Joe Biden’s finest hours was when he goaded the congressional Republicans into insisting they had no intention of threatening the programs:
Joe Biden and the Democrats have made it clear that if they get the majority they plan to raise the caps on Social Security and Medicare taxes to shore up the program. Rich Republicans are adamantly opposed to that and will do anything to prevent it. Throwing away money on Nikki Haley is one thing. Paying to keep old people from having to eat cat food is a bridge too far.
As CNN reported, the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity Action made it clear in their endorsement why they are backing Haley:
Emily Seidel – a top official in the influential political network associated with billionaire Charles Koch – praised the former UN ambassador’s “courage” for advocating changes to “an entitlement system that makes promises it can’t keep.”
And they aren’t the only ones:
“We need a complete reevaluation of entitlements,” Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot who is weighing backing Haley
In fact, I think we can assume that Haley’s eagerness to cut these programs is a primary motive behind the surge in big donor interest in her campaign. They may realize on some level that she is not going to win this time but they are signaling that this is the way to a billionaire’s heart. If you’re willing to force poor elderly people into even worse penury than they already are, you are their kind of gal. They’re investing in a future when Donald Trump is no longer telling his followers what they want to hear.
It will be interesting to see how Trump handles this. Although he’s vaguely indicated that he thinks cuts could be offset by growth for some reason, for the most part he’s held fast to his promise that the two vital programs cannot be cut and he’s kept the party with him. But as we can see, that’s a very tenuous promise. The real owners of the Republican Party are preparing to reassert themselves and this one little populist promise will die the day that Trump is finally out of politics. Haley is savvy enough to see that coming out strong on this issue tells the billionaires everything they need to know about who she really serves.
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