POLITICS
05/18/2018 03:58 pm ET Updated May 18, 2018

For Liberal Billionaire Tom Steyer, It’s All About That Base

He’s betting that a campaign to impeach Donald Trump will turn out infrequent voters in November. What could go wrong?
Democratic fundraiser Tom Steyer wants to turn out millennial voters in 10 battleground states this November.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Democratic fundraiser Tom Steyer wants to turn out millennial voters in 10 battleground states this November.

STERLING, Va. ― Tom Steyer, a former hedge fund manager from California, wants to Make America Progressive Again.

And more than any other Democratic donor, he’s putting his money where his mouth is. The billionaire has sunk over $32 million into his political nonprofit NextGen America’s efforts to turn out millennial voters in 10 battleground states this year.

More controversially, Steyer has spent another $40 million on a “Need to Impeach” initiative, using television ads to drum up signatures for a petition to oust President Donald Trump.

In an interview with Steyer this week, HuffPost asked him about the effectiveness of a campaign centered on the president, rather than policy issues; his views on the violence in Gaza; whether he plans to run for president; and whether his extraordinary wealth undermines his credibility as a progressive leader.

Why are you trying to mobilize millennials?

It’s the biggest age cohort in America and it votes at half the overall rate of American citizens. It seems to me a critical thing for the country that people who are knowledgeable and passionate and feel like the system doesn’t respond to them participate in elections. They also happen to be the most diverse generation in American history, and they’re probably the most progressive Americans.

Millennial support for Democrats, according to a Reuters poll, has dropped off by 9 points since 2016. Is it possible that an effort to mobilize these voters could actually help Republicans?

Well, I can tell you that our experience of going and doing more grassroots organizing for people under the age of 35 doesn’t suggest that. And I saw that poll as well, so it’ll be whatever it is.

But we believe that the broadest democracy is the best democracy, and overlooked groups are not gonna have their interests and rights respected unless they participate.

Your Mother’s Day ad ― in which a regretful mom warned others to “talk to your child about the GOP” ― made some waves. Was it supposed to be satirical?

Of course, it was supposed to be funny. Did you laugh?

Yeah, I thought it was kind of funny. But isn’t the ad a case of preaching to the choir? The people who find it funny are probably already voting for Democrats.

OK, but then, I would ask you this: If you look at 2014 and 2016 and 2010, all the national elections in the last decade that have not included the words “Barack Obama,” how’s the Democratic turnout been?

Is this about the base then?

It’s about turnout, yes. If you look at why pollsters have blown every election for the last two years, it’s because they can’t model the electorate. They know how Daniel’s gonna vote; they just don’t know if he’s gonna vote.

There’s polling data that says your “Need to Impeach” campaign is a political loser. Won’t it just drive Republicans out to the polls?

First of all, you have to start with the point that we actually have a reckless, lawless and dangerous president, that we actually think he should be impeached, that in every single one of the instances that you’re talking about, he has more influence on it than anyone else in the United States of America ― in a malign way.

So whether they like it or not, this [midterm election] is largely a referendum on this administration.

What is your answer to the tactical argument against it? Because you don’t get to impeach Trump without a majority in the House. The last time impeachment was in the air in 1998, it was a midterm election for a second-term Democratic president and Democrats still ended up gaining seats in part because of public fatigue with the impeachment process.

I think this is really different from 1998, and I bet you do too. There you had a president who was being impeached for a lie about a personal affair. Here we have a president who really is degrading our Constitution on a daily basis and breaking the law on important things.

So what the Democrats are saying is, “We don’t want to talk about it because we’re worried that tactically, politically, in six months, our polls tell us it won’t work well”? It’s six months from now. You have no idea. The pollsters have missed every single election [in the past two years].

We think this is a maelstrom, so we’re gonna go to our go-to move. Our go-to move is: Tell the truth and put the American people first.

Anybody who thinks that they know what it’s gonna be like on Nov. 6, 2018, is kidding themselves. The world just changed today. We don’t know what’s gonna happen in the Gaza Strip. I don’t. Do you? Do I think it’s a big deal? I do actually.  

Wasn’t the 2016 election already a referendum on Trump? Hillary Clinton banked on the idea that he was so repulsive, voters would reject him.

Well, that’s actually an interesting point. I would say that midterm elections are overwhelmingly referendums on a sitting administration. The energy Democrats are counting on is not a positive reflection of the great program they’re putting forward, but is a reflection of people’s distaste for this president.

I don’t know what you think the Women’s March was about. I sort of think it was about people who were really upset about this president. Every single one of these Indivisible groups is really a reaction to this election. I don’t think that they’re sitting here saying, “What we’re really organizing around is the Democratic platform.” Do you?

I do, to be honest with you.

Every single issue [Democratic voters care about goes back to Trump]. Is health care a gigantic issue in America? Absolutely. Is Trump on the wrong side of it? 100 percent. Is he on the wrong side of every issue as regards the American people? I think he is actually.

One issue you seem passionate about is the Israeli government’s killing of protesters in Gaza this week. Why do you think it was a pivotal moment?

Our foreign policy is changing from being a relationship-based partnership policy around the world to a military policy. Here’s a perfect example where we believe that the United States and its allies have the right to dictate what’s supposed to happen ― whether that’s our relationship with climate policy, NAFTA, Iran, China, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Does it surprise that now we’re in a proxy war in Syria and now in the Gaza Strip where we’re using force to insist that we’re right? It doesn’t surprise me. Because the implication of our foreign policy is: We will do what we want. And we will dictate outcomes to everybody else in the world.

What do you mean by proxy war?

When you look at what happened, we pulled out of the Iran [nuclear] treaty, and that causes an opening for missiles trading back and forth in Syria between Iran and Israel. And we moved our embassy to Jerusalem, and that caused protests in Gaza, which were put down with extreme force.

And so I think that if you look at all the different instances I gave you, America is stating that we represent only ourselves and we will use our might to ensure we get our way. That’s a real change in terms of what we said we are in the world, where we’d been trying to be an example of democracy and liberty.

Billions of people have a screen and they’re looking at what’s going on and they’re drawing their own conclusions about who we are.

What should we do about Israel? Leverage American aid to change their behavior?

People are always talking about what we should do. In most instances, in foreign economics, there’s not one thing you should do. The question is what role you’re gonna play and what are the principles under which you’re going to play it.

But one of the questions we need to ask is: Are we gonna be a country that is trying to live up to its ideals? Or are we a country that insists on its way and uses military might to make sure we get it?

Steyer rarely gets involved in Democratic primaries, but he has endorsed California state Sen. Kevin de Leon (left), who is c
Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images
Steyer rarely gets involved in Democratic primaries, but he has endorsed California state Sen. Kevin de Leon (left), who is challenging Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

With “Need to Impeach,” you’ve built an email list of over 5 million people. Are you going to run for president?

I have no idea what I’m gonna do after Nov. 6, and there’s no way to know.

The funny thing about this is, you’re asking me and people are always asking me, “What is your subtext? Because you couldn’t really think that this unfit president is unfit, that this lawless president is actually lawless.”

No, the subtext is: This guy’s dangerous.

There are bright candidates exciting the grassroots and they’re sometimes fighting to get a fair shake with Democratic Party leadership because they don’t have a dollar to their names. Why not back progressives in primary races?

We are going to be asked to do a thousand things this year. If we do a thousand things, we are going to do zero well.

We are the largest organizer of young people in the United States. We are knocking on millions of doors with the unions. We are trying to oppose this president as hard as we can with this impeachment campaign. And we are running up to three statewide [ballot initiatives] on clean energy.

So it’s not like we’re doing nothing. I challenge you to find somebody who is doing as much.

We have made the choice that if people are within the range of Democratic reason, we are going to give as much information to the voters and let them decide.

Having said that, we understand that there is an intellectual combat going on within the Democratic Party. To use a simplistic term that I don’t really agree with, it’s kind of Hillary vs. Bernie, mods and progressives.

That’s a fairly accurate framing.

It ain’t really though. The real way to think about it is: Are we talking about incremental thinking or visionary thinking?

And the second is about corruption. If you’re taking $385,000 for a one-hour speech to Goldman Sachs, really that didn’t change anything for you? Because I think most people in America thought, “If I got $385,000, it might change something for me.” If someone gave me $385,000 and said, “I’d like you to have a meeting,” I’d say, “OK!”

People get that. There’s a big question about the fact that our system is corrupt and rigged. And that’s something that Democrats are inchoately dealing with. Like, that just feels wrong!

My father was a lawyer, and one of the first things he told me about being a citizen was that “But everybody else does it, your honor,” is not a defense at law.

In that divide though, however you want to frame it, where do you place yourself?

Progressive.

Some people might say, “This guy is fabulously wealthy. How can he ever really get the depths of economic inequality and what it’s like to struggle?”

I’m sure people may think that. I do this for 100 percent of my time and try to make sure I speak to American voters as much as possible, and that’s the most fun I have.

So every single week, I am out talking to people who are not fabulously wealthy. In fact, I very rarely talk to people who are fabulously wealthy. What I try to do as much as possible is go and make sure that I’m talking to activists and regular citizens, so that I, in fact, do understand.

One of the real issues here is raising money and whether you have to spend all your time talking to people who are somewhere between rich and fabulously rich because they can afford to give thousands to your campaign.

And you don’t have to do that.

I don’t! I consider it a privilege and a luxury that I get to talk to normal people. I get to talk to normal Americans all the time and it is incredibly fun.

Goldman Sachs hasn’t offered me $385,000 and I don’t know what I’d do if they ever did. But I don’t need it. I can be as honest as I can be.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

HuffPost

BEFORE YOU GO

PHOTO GALLERY
The Best (Literal) Reactions To Trump's State Of The Union
CONVERSATIONS