What would happen if we did not open the newspaper to find an op-ed written by an old, aggrieved white man who has turned his rage about some personal slight against him into a column? Even setting aside the obvious need for more demographic diversity at op-ed pages, what if we just had one day’s relief from the teeming multitudes of columnists—all older, richer, and more conservative than the average American—that are given space by America’s newspapers to forever litigate the case of The People Who Personally Insulted Me v. My Wounded Pride?
Today is not that day. Instead, it brings an installment of this genre that is substantially more baffling than the typical “my Twitter mentions are dangerous and unacceptable” fare. In The Washington Post, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell has written an op-ed accusing presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren of being a hypocrite on campaign finance. There’s a case to be made against Warren on this issue. But in this case, rather than consider the compelling public interest at stake, Rendell has chosen to bizarrely center his criticism on his personal involvement with Warren.
Rendell identifies two reasons that Warren is a hypocrite. First, she transferred money from her Senate campaign account to her presidential equivalent, as detailed by The New York Times on September 9. Second, she criticized Joe Biden for hosting a big-donor fund-raiser on the day of his campaign announcement, all the way back in April. Rendell notes that he “helped organize that affair,” and that “nearly 20 of us who attended the Biden fund-raiser had also given [Warren] $2,000 or more in 2018 at closed-door fund-raisers in ‘swanky’ locations.” Busted, Liz.
The timing of Rendell’s screed, birthed on the morning of the primary debate in which Warren will finally face off against Biden, belies his motive—if he was so affronted by her hypocrisy back in April, why did it take him five months to write an 800-word op-ed? (Perhaps Rendell had to fall on this sword after telling some uncomfortable truths about Biden’s campaign to Politico just days ago. On those pages, Rendell characterized Biden supporters as being “nervous as hell” that the candidates’s “gaffes will pile up and he’ll come down.” This is not usually the sort of thing you want your campaign surrogates saying in the press.)
Nevertheless, Rendell’s piece provides a useful distillation of the ludicrous motivations of these high-dollar donors. The vast majority of Americans who do not get to plan or attend closed-door fund-raisers with people who make their money from killing the planet usually think of these dirty affairs as quid pro quo investments in a candidate’s future policy decisions—and for reasons that are completely fair. What is one supposed to think when a candidate spends their time raising money from plutocrats who siphon their profits straight from the pump of oppressive inequality? How could spending so much time in conversation with these sorts not influence a candidate’s perceptions of policy? And wouldn’t such donors simply refuse to give money to any candidate who genuinely threatened their interests?
These are all fair assessments of the political fund-raising world. But tantrums like Rendell’s expose the truth that the membership of the donor class, despite having enough money to effectively immunize them against the political choices that unravel the lives of ordinary people, are also just socially stunted people who use campaign money as currency in their social relationships, and whose personal feelings have a great effect on who and what they support. In one way, it would be much simpler if they did simply view these fund-raisers as handing over bags of cash in exchange for policy favors. Then, at least, these machinations would be less impenetrable.
The Times piece that detailed Warren’s previous high-dollar fund-raising had a similarly revealing quote from Stephen Silberstein, a Democratic mega-donor who has given millions of dollars to Democratic fund-raising vehicles. Silberstein “had Ms. Warren over to his San Francisco-area home” for fund-raisers in the past, but “bristled when he first heard Ms. Warren would stop doing events like the dinner he had held for her,” according to the paper. In fact, he told the Times, his “first reaction” was that he was “insulted” by her rejection. For millionaires who dabble in politics, getting shut out of a candidate’s rise to office is a snub, like seeing your friends post photos of their brunch without you. It was hypocritical of you to ghost me, Senator. Never mind the policy issues, never mind the people whose literal lives are on the line in this election: Was it something I said? Was the chicken dry?
More than anything, it betrays the fact that these big donors don’t get involved for reasons of pure, high-minded civic virtue. In his op-ed, Rendell disputes Warren’s implication that rich people donate the maximum amount to candidates because “they believe it will get them a federal job, win their business a federal contract or even gain special access.” Instead, he says, they simply “believe strongly that the candidate would make a great leader, or maybe they believe in the candidate’s values or policies on the important issues challenging the country.” Maybe they believe their ideas are good, or whatever. He asserts that he’s “confident” that “the crowd at the Biden fund-raiser gave money to him for the same reason” he did—that Biden is the best candidate.
Rendell is surely worth more money than most of us, but his value—and danger—as a political fund-raiser is that he leverages connections made in his long career in politics to raise money for candidates for office and in doing so, has a great effect on which kinds of candidates can succeed. An Intercept piece by Paul Perry, who quit his primary challenge against a better-funded Democrat for a congressional seat in Pennsylvania, recounted a meeting he had with Rendell and two Democratic fund-raisers, which illuminates Rendell’s approach to political fund-raising:
I showed up at Serpico on South Street a few days later to find Rendell and two older African-American men tucked into a booth in a mostly empty room with dark wood décor. Rendell waved me over to sit down next to the man across from him and I shook all of their hands. He introduced me and noted that Welters is a top executive for a major health care company and a top fundraiser for Obama. The three men then began to grill me on my stance on fracking.
Welters brought the conversation to a close by saying that he would gladly host a house party for me. Rendell had previously indicated that such a party would likely bring in $100,000 to $200,000, at least. I offered some polite goodbyes and alighted out of the restaurant, stunned and gleeful. After dozens of calls to the bundler, the party never materialized before I left the race.
(Rendell told the Intercept that Perry had “misread” that meeting, that the people he introduced Perry to weren’t trying to get his “help,” and that “fundraising sucks.” He seems to like it more from the other side of the table.)
Rich people are people too, which means they have the same inscrutable and indefensible personal biases and feelings that we all hold. This would not matter if they didn’t hold the keys to political office and have an incredibly disproportionate influence on our democracy, but they do and it does.
Still, Rendell is right about one thing, if for the wrong reasons: Elizabeth Warren is a hypocrite for taking rich people’s money and then decrying it during the primary. It would be one thing if Warren had some sort of genuine realization in the past year that setting foot in the living rooms of millionaires is dangerous, but she hasn’t: She has said that she will return to these fund-raisers if she is the Democratic nominee, saying that to not do so would be “unilateral disarmament.”
It doesn’t work like that. Elizabeth Warren cannot spend a primary campaign proudly rejecting big donor money because she recognizes its dangerous influence on politics, and then turn around and take millions of that same money in the general election, without being a hypocrite. You can decide that you trust Elizabeth Warren to walk into those fund-raisers and out again with the same politics, if you like, and she’s certainly got a better chance of doing that than most of those who ooze in and out of these havens of affluence and influence. But you wouldn’t be wrong for deciding you don’t trust her to do that, either. Trust in politicians should be hard-won and quick to dissipate.
Ed Rendell is the last person who should be issuing lectures about hypocrisy and campaign finance. In 2016, it was revealed that Rendell received $5,000 a month from a casino that was a “possible money laundering operation,” whose offices were later raided by the FBI. And it’s painfully obvious that he floated this attack ahead of the debates. But Elizabeth Warren should take heed, and rescind her promise to go and fund-raise from these cretins if she wins the nomination. They’re petty weirdos who make America worse. Why would you want to hang out with them, anyway? Maybe it is time to unilaterally disarm, and take up arms elsewhere.