How the Presidency Became a Billionaire’s Ultimate Prize

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There was a time the presidency was beneath a billionaire’s ambition.

Oh, the son of a billionaire like John Kennedy or Nelson Rockefeller might draw on dad’s cash to pave a golden path to the White House. But the guys who made their fortunes in industry or finance traditionally disdained the demotion that the presidency represented. The better posterity play was to spend some money to slap your name on a museum or a new philanthropic foundation or to buy a newspaper. If the political itch persisted, the billionaire could always scratch it by buying the presidency for a friend or associate.

So why then are so many billionaires running for president in the 2020 cycle or shopping for the office? Faux billionaire Donald Trump is obviously in again. (He’s been running since he was elected the first time.) Michael Bloomberg and Starbucks mogul Howard Schultz have taxied their personal jets onto the runway. Fellow plutocrat Tom Steyer was flying in formation with them until early January when he bowed out after assessing his chances, although he’s still a player, having pledged $40 million just to impeach Trump. And don’t forget the coquettish billionaires who’ve visited Iowa or otherwise teased the press with the notice of a candidacy: Mark Cuban, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and Bob Iger. This is a bestiary of plutocrats so plentiful it would require Audubon to collect, paint and stuff them for inspection by a political taxonomist.

The first genuine billionaire to aggressively stoop to a run at the presidency, H. Ross Perot, did so twice in the 1990s as a third-party candidate, spending $115 million (in today’s dollars) in the 1992 contest. He won just 18.9 percent of the popular vote, which soured other billionaires on running until Trump launched his 2016 campaign. But Perot’s wacky campaign—he briefly dropped out in July because he believed President George H.W. Bush planned to smear his daughter and spoil her wedding!—infected the billionaire class with the idea. What is Trump but Perot played at grindcore tempo? The decline of party authority and the rise of affordable media combined to lower the barriers to entry, giving wealthy outsiders like them, with no real party loyalty, a new way in. Presidential candidacy, in effect, had become disintermediated.

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