Politics

Tom Steyer Has Good Billionaire Energy

I couldn’t help but like him. I finally figured out why.

A profile photo of democratic presidential hopeful Tom Steyer's face as he speaks during a town hall.
Tom Steyer speaks during a town hall meeting in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on Wednesday.
Jim Watson/Getty Images

I no longer remember which debate it was that made me face the fact that I liked Tom Steyer. It’s not the kind of thing I care to admit; I don’t tend to “like” presidential candidates or billionaires, no matter how plaid their ties. Yet there it was: I liked Steyer enough to feel for him when he found himself ping-ponging between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren during their infamous nonhandshake—and all just because he wanted to say hi to Sanders.

It built up over time, the liking. It has translated to no desire at all for him to be president. But on a stage brimming with ambition, much of it effective, he seemed well-meaning and harmless. Even humble. Steyer had smiley cheekbones and sad eyes and kept saying things I broadly agreed with: He focused on reparations long after everyone else stopped talking about them, he treated climate change like a priority so urgent you could see him stress over it in real time, and he won’t stop talking about race: “Every single policy area in the United States has a gigantic subtext of race,” he said Tuesday night. “We’re talking about education. We’re talking about criminal justice. We’re talking about housing. We’re talking about loans.” Even when he talks about the real measures he himself has taken to correct some of these injustices, he talks about them without quite bragging (unlike Bloomberg, who came perilously close to claiming he “bought” Congress on the debate stage). Most intriguingly of all, Steyer knows he can’t possibly win, but he’s still running. I don’t know why he’s doing it, but at least he’s using his billionaire money to attack the other billionaires—he funded ads to impeach Donald Trump and is now running ads on Bloomberg’s racist tactics. It’s symptomatic of our supremely confused moment that the man is spending millions to (apparently and ironically) get money out of politics. Compared with his fellow billionaire candidates, Tom Steyer has good billionaire energy.

It’s not that Steyer is toothless. The San Francisco executive has serious criticisms to offer. But they come packaged in a spirit of good-natured, slightly desperate, extremely earnest concern. He’s more wide-eyed and alarmed than angry—an affect I find immensely, to borrow a tired word, relatable. Whether it’s true or not, Steyer appears to be experiencing climate-related realities on a slightly different, more urgent and accelerated plane: The impression one gets, watching him stand on the far edge at his podium, fidgeting, craning his neck, is that he is personally afraid of climate change and can’t put his concern on pause long enough to produce a smooth political performance. His urgency isn’t inspiring me to vote for him, but it is compelling to the extent that I share it.

Poorly regulated climate panic isn’t, by the way, Steyer’s reputation. Like many a billionaire, the man has been lovingly profiled in ways that tiresomely equate business acumen with aggression and dominance. A Men’s Journal article from 2014 describes him as having “the disposition of an Irish pugilist, an aggressive financier animated by a sporting esprit de combat.” That may be so. It’s certainly the case that a person who “made his billions by taking stomach-turning risks on distressed assets in volatile market conditions”—these are euphemisms the article encourages you not to parse—must have predatory instincts. Steyer does have those, and we saw this so-called pugilistic side in action on Tuesday, when Joe Biden delivered a garbled story about Steyer’s hedge fund investing in abusive private prisons, which it did. Steyer had defended the decision at the time, but the fund sold those investments two years later, acknowledging that it was doing so partly in response to pressure from student protests. Steyer’s defensiveness on this point during the debate was less than convincing; he was more self-righteous than repentant and insisted he’d “worked to end the use of private prisons in my home state, and we’ve ended it.” This isn’t the case, as my colleague Molly Olmstead points out: “Steyer has supported legislation in California to eventually eliminate private prisons and privately run immigration detention facilities that contract with the federal government. But there are still private prisons in the state, and there are limitations to the law that will allow a number of them to continue to operate in California.”

Anger is Steyer’s worst look. He’s better when he campaigns on learning from his mistakes. But what I realized I liked most about Steyer is that he seems, on the whole, less angry or pugilistic than simply (and appropriately) scared.

It’s a word he uses a fair amount—he used it Tuesday night too when he described what he called “a huge risk for the Democratic Party”: “We are looking at a party that has decided that we’re either going to support someone who is a democratic socialist or somebody who has a long history of being a Republican,” he said. “And let me say that I got into this race because I wanted to fight for economic justice, for racial justice, and to make sure we had climate justice for the American people. And I am scared.”

Many of us are scared. Maybe I just appreciate that Steyer is too because billionaires, for the most part, don’t have to be. They’ll be fine, no matter what happens. Their money separates and insulates them from ordinary human fears and imminent human cataclysms. Bloomberg sure isn’t scared; he seems surprised in a clinical sort of way that people disagree with him, certainly, but even his surprise carries a whiff of contempt, as if the dissenters were unruly pets instead of people. Elon Musk isn’t scared. Neither is Jeff Bezos. The causes they espouse seem more like puerile hobbies (let’s send a car into space!) or notionally ethical personal fulfillment projects (buying a world-class newspaper just because you can, then underpaying the staff!). Steyer seems different. He seems desperate for someone to take seriously the problems he’s spending a lot of his money to publicize (and has already spent a lot of money trying to solve).

These are fine distinctions, I realize. Billionaires do not become billionaires by being harmless, and it takes extraordinary hubris to declare yourself a serious contender to lead the country. But when you have not one but three billionaires running for office in a crumbling democracy while Antarctica melts, it’s incumbent upon us to compare them. That Steyer won’t last makes him easier to like even while I’m still wondering what exactly he’s doing still running for president. Democrats already have a political revolution candidate, a plans candidate, a “no big ideas” candidate, a malarkey candidate, a small mayoral candidate, and a snide mayoral candidate. All these are at least politicians. It’s an unfortunate and entirely predictable reality that billionaires, having amassed enormous amounts of money, power, and influence, are finally ready to emerge on the political stage as the gigantic influence they always were.

Still, I have appreciated, during these roiling times, while one billionaire thinks he makes reality and another one thinks he buys it, having a scared billionaire in whose face I can read at least some of what I see in my own: This is an emergency, and we’ve got to do something about it—where “it” is racism, reparations, climate change. Maybe the most a good billionaire can show us, and it’s not much, is that at least one is capable of understanding that he doesn’t determine what is and isn’t real. I don’t want him in charge, but I’m glad he’s worried too.