Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino mogul and Director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, is not shy—or cheap—about his politics. After donating $21 million to Newt Gingrich’s failed Republican primary bid, Adelson has now thrown his support behind Republican nominee Mitt Romney, beginning with a $10 million donation to the pro-Romney "super PAC" Restore Our Future, another $35 million to conservative nonprofits, and the promise of “limitless” funds to Romney-backers over the course of the election. Adelson’s eye-popping contributions will surely shape the coming campaign; according to some liberals, they also represent a shameless attempt to buy the presidency.
The backlash has been swift and alarmist. Senator John McCain was the first to get in on the act, calling out Adelson for his outsized contributions and warning of an influx of “foreign money” in American campaigns (Adelson owns casinos in Mexico and China). McCain ultimately faulted the Supreme Court for its “uninformed, arrogant, [and] naive” decision in Citizens United, which, he claims, opened the door for such lavish campaign spending. Meanwhile, Phillip Weiss assumes that Adelson “demanded Romney’s support for settlements and an undivided Jerusalem” in exchange for his donation. And The New Yorker suggested that all of Romney’s future political moves must be analyzed for traces of Adelson’s influence.
Could it be? Has Mitt Romney been bought by a sinister pro-Israel hawk? Is this the new reality of political elections in a post-Citizens United world?
Not so much. For starters, Adelson’s contributions have nothing to do with Citizens United. That decision applies only to money donated by corporations or unions—not wealthy individuals like Adelson. The right of individuals to fund independent political groups (including super PACs) was affirmed in 1976 by Buckley v. Valeo.
In fact, rich people have been spending vast sums of money on political campaigns for quite some time. In 2004, George Soros donated nearly $24 million to democratic candidates, while Bob Perry and T. Boone Pickens funded the headline-grabbing “Swift Boat” ad campaign. Further back, W. Clement Stone bankrolled Richard Nixon in 1972 and Stewart Mott funded Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern with the equivalent of multi-million dollar donations.
If Romney wins, will Adelson receive some choice presidential goodies? Probably. Presidents have a history of rewarding their largest donors; it’s one of the perks of supporting the winner.
But there is little reason to suspect that President Romney would become Sheldon Adelson’s Manchurian Candidate. The more likely scenario is that Adelson simply aligns with Romney on the political issues that he finds most important—notably, Israel. This will not demand much of a policy adjustment from Romney, who has expressed staunch support of Israel well in advance of receiving any money from Adelson. And, in truth, Adelson’s position on Israel is not much different than most Republican voters.
What should we be worried about? Perhaps the vaguely anti-Semitic notion that a wealthy Jewish donor is trying to buy an election for Israel’s benefit should raise some eyebrows. Or the baseless claim that Mitt Romney is selling appointments to the court and American foreign policy for the right price. No one has suggested that President Obama is beholden to the cast of Ocean’s 11, and in an election that has already seen its fair share of troubling religious rhetoric, the vilification of Sheldon Adelson seems particularly disturbing.
So, what’s the real story? How about this: Sheldon Adelson really dislikes President Obama and has given lots of money to the candidate most capable of defeating him.