What would the world be like if the Republican Party’s most influential billionaire backers got their way—if “the geezer empire struck back,” as New York magazine writer Frank Rich put it in a recent piece about this posse of unbelievably wealthy white men who have written million-dollar checks to GOP super PACs and non-profits in 2012.
Beyond the usual GOP jeremiads—cutting taxes and government spending, shredding safety nets, eviscerating federal regulation and privatizing whatever remains—many of the GOP’s biggest moneymen have specific issues and goals, often business-related, and would expect a Romney presidency to advance those agendas.
There is no shortage of amazing reporting on top GOP donors, such as Rich’s overview of these "Sugar Daddies" or The New Republic’s profile of 80-year-old Harold Simmons. Add in reports from watchdogs, such as the Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group, and what emerges is a jaw-dropping class of mega-wealthy, alpha-male vulture capitalists who would barely blink at the human or environmental consequences of cashing out.
The 2012 campaign has been awash in Republican billionaires who have discovered they can write checks—small for them at just a million or two—and are fawned over by political consultants urging them to go for the jugular. Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts is one such political newcomer. He backed off a $10 million race-baiting plan to smear Obama with remarks by his former pastor, but is now investing in a movie where the guilt-by-association is tied to Obama’s absentee Kenyan father.
Other newcomers include William Koch, an avid sailor who has opposed a wind turbine farm off Cape Cod and now grouses about Obama being too regulation friendly, even as the New York Times editorializes that his record reining in corporate excesses is “mediocre.”
These all-too-predictable political screeds and their billionaire promoters appear as babes in the political woods, actually, when compared to the GOP’s more seasoned big moneymen who have used campaign cash and lobbying to win government intervention on behalf of their private fortunes. In contrast to fulminations against Obama’s anti-colonial heritage or supposedly anti-capitalist inclinations, several billionaire Republicans know exactly why they are investing in Mitt Romney.
1. Irradiate North America’s Biggest Aquifer
Harold Simmons has come a long way from his hardscrabble rural Texas roots and schoolteacher parents. In March, he told the Wall Street Journal in a rare interview that he, his wife and his companies had given nearly $19 million to various GOP political committees and that figure might double by November. He didn’t reveal much besides predictably calling Obama a socialist and “the most dangerous American alive,” and saying that he was pro-choice.
For decades, Simmons has been buying and selling companies, running into government regulators and unions along the way, and more often than not stubbornly overcoming his opponents—through paying campaign donations, lobbying and changing laws. In 1995, he became involved with a project to create a nuclear waste dump in Andrews County in West Texas. Last year, after Texas’ legislature passed a bill to allow 36 states to dump low-level waste, Forbes reported that his stake in the project jumped from $5 billion to $9.6 billion.
Simmons is hoping that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will allow the site to start accepting high-grade radioactive waste from power plants and the military. In 2006, the company won a state environmental permit, after it spent six years not only changing Texas law to allow it to proceed, but steamrolling state environmental geologists who worried the project would leak into the Ogallala Aquifer, North America’s largest.
“Perhaps the nuclear waste business is all that’s driving Simmons’s interest in the 2012 election,” speculated TNR’s Charles Homans. “Or perhaps it is a belief that a federal government run by a now-vehemently anti-regulation GOP will look forgivingly on his other heavy industrial properties, which one day could find themselves liable for toxic leftovers.”
2. Push Climate Change To Point of No Return
The Koch brothers and their fossil fuel empire have been the left’s poster boys for climate change deniers, anti-unionism and bare-knuckles political brawls for years. But they are hardly the only energy billionaires backing the GOP and Mitt Romney. Harold Hamm, an Oklahoma oil billionaire who gave $985,000 to a pro-Romney super PAC in March, also was appointed head of the Romney campaign’s energy policy group.
Hamm, whose personal holdings are worth $11 billion according to Forbes, not only has been dismissive of Obama’s “low-pollution green energy" policies, as the Tulsa World newspaper put it, but has been an early and leading developer of natural gas fracking in North Dakota and Montana, as well as a persistent critic of delaying the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The project would enable energy firms to open up Canadian tar sands operations that would release tremendous amounts of carbon.
The Romney “energy agenda” includes, the campaign Web site says, opening “America’s energy reserves to development,” preventing “overregulation of shale gas development and extraction,” amending “the Clean Air Act to exclude carbon dioxide from its purview” and expanding NRC “capabilities for approval of additional nuclear reactor designs.”
Environmentalists have plenty to worry about with possible Obama administration approval of the Keystone XL pipeline should he be re-elected. But under a Romney administration guided by the likes of Hamm and Simmons, the potential damage to America’s drinking water reserves and the Earth’s atmosphere could last eons.
3. Push Worldwide Recession into Worldwide Depression
During the GOP primaries, both Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry took aim at Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital, which Perry called “vulture capitalism,” as opposed to venture capitalism, where the investors help start-ups that they hope will grow and prosper.
There’s no shortage of investment managers supporting Romney, especially from Bain, which is among the biggest donors to the pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future. As Thomas Edsall recently wrote in his New York Times column, “if Mitt Romney’s campaign and the Romney-supporting super PAC Restore Our Future were a public company, the financial services industry would have a controlling interest.”
Perhaps Edsall exaggerates, as only 42.5 percent of the $56.4 million donated to Restore Our Future is from “people and corporations in finance.” Their agenda, he says, is to repeal the Dodd-Frank regulatory act passed after the equities market collapsed in 2008, weaken the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002—passed after Enron’s bankruptcy—and to cut overall tax rates, maintain current rates for investments, and repeal estate taxes.
The Obama campaign and Democrats have also received plenty of money from Wall Street. However, among the GOP’s million-dollar super PAC donors are some men with more specific agendas who feel that electing Romney would be electing a kindred spirit.
No one stands out more so in this regard than New York City’s Paul Singer—as does his way of making money at his hedge fund, which is worth $19 billion, according to Fortune. At Bain, Romney bought companies. Singer, who also has given nearly $10 million to groups and campaigns supporting gay rights, buys countries.
More specifically, he buys government debt from countries in economic distress—for pennies on the dollar—and then uses legal hardball to collect as much as he can. Singer has wrung tens of millions of dollars per transaction from some of the world’s poorest counties, nations where children stand on street corners hawking baggies of water for a penny instead of going to dilapidated schools.
Singer’s firm owns Argentine bonds with a face value of $630 million that he says are now worth $2.3 billion with interest, according to court documents—where he has won judgments but has not yet been able to repossess Argentine assets. As Spanish bank credit ratings fell last week, raising the possibility that a Eurozone debt crisis will erupt with global ripples, Singer sees similar “opportunity” in Europe “in such periods of market tumult,” according to Fortune, quoting from one of his late 2011 newsletters.
Singer clearly wants a man in the White House who will let the market chips fall as they might, regardless of human impact, because that is the cost of doing business. As Frank Rich wrote in New York magazine, “Mitt’s coterie of Wall Street vulture capitalists is second to none in rapaciousness—starting with the hedge-fund gambler John Paulson, who collaborated with Goldman Sachs on his megabet against the entire American housing industry before the crash. Another Romney hedge-fund patron, Paul Singer, is notorious for slick trafficking in Third World debt, with results that leave the destitute masses of countries in far sadder state than the hapless Goldman clients.”
4. Consumer Protections? What Consumer Protections?
Last week, the Federal Trade Commission announced that POM Wonderful had engaged in deceptive advertising for health claims surrounding its fruit-based products, according to a decision by an administrative law judge. POM seized on another part of the ruling and launched an advertising campaign trumpeting the ruling as a triumph—raising eyebrows in legal circles as an audacious act taunting the FTC.
But such hype is standard fare among another cadre of Romney’s billionaire donors: men who have made fortunes by multi-level marketing schemes where the cost to join often exceeds income—based on similar over-promises that has prompted a handful of state attorneys general to sue alleging these plans were little more than pyramid schemes.
Steven Lund, an executive at Utah-based Nu Skin, which settled out of court, is a million-dollar donor to Romney’s super PAC. So is Frank VanderSloot, whose Idaho-based Melaleuca, another multi-level marketing firm, has a Web site featuring a woman saying she earned half a million dollars, but according to Mother Jones magazine, the average income can be under $100. Romney has praised VanderSloot for his “vision” and “social responsibility,” although he also is known in Idaho for his anti-gay rights campaigns.
In Romney’s proto-capitalistic world, prizes go to the winners at the top of the income pyramid. That same attitude can be found with one more corner of the top GOP donors—only this time the goals are far more ideological, and the stakes are higher because they are fanning the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
5. Supporting Israel’s Most Extreme Right-Wingers
It's well known that Las Vegas casino owner Sheldeon Adelson, whose family has given more than $20 million to Newt Gingrich’s super PACs, has called the Palestinians an “invented people” and has based much of his support on Gingrich’s hard-line stances supporting Israel. But another million-dollar donor to a Romney super PAC is Irving Moskowitz, a physician-turned-hospital owner who has channeled one unexpected area of business profits—bingo parlors—into buying West Bank land for Jewish settlers.
Moskowitz has a foundation that runs the parlors in California, where the income is used to finance Israeli settler housing developments in Arab areas in East Jerusalem. Adelson owns one of Israel’s largest free newspapers, which supports the government’s hard-line stance toward Palestinians. But a one-man colonial empire is not just eyebrow raising, it’s incendiary—fomenting hatred on the ground that is not going away anytime soon.
The GOP’s billionaire donors—all white, wealthy men and patriarchs heading their own empires—have a lot in common. They know no rules other than doing whatever it takes to win. They don’t take no for an answer. They keep at it until they get what they want. And they see Mitt Romney as a kindred spirit who shares their values and will get the federal government to step in, or step aside, to help them secure their next fortune.
Steven Rosenfeld covers democracy issues for AlterNet and is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).