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The Problem With Sheldon Adelson

It’s not his politics; it’s his influence

Marc Tracy
January 30, 2012
Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images
Sheldon Adelson in 2010.Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images
Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images
Sheldon Adelson in 2010.Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images

When you fill in your bracket for the NCAA basketball tournament this March, the optimal strategy will be to pick a plausible longshot as your champion. It’s simple: You could pick one of the favorites, but many others in your pool will as well, and your chances of having outcompeted them in the rest of your bracket are slim; pick the champion right, and you will probably win.

It’s important to understand that the enticing prospect of anointing an outsider surely played some roll in Sheldon and Miriam Adelson’s decision to very publicly donate $10 million to a pro-Newt Gingrich Super PAC this month, thereby almost single-handedly materially and politically keeping Gingrich in the race for the Republican nomination. Frontrunner Mitt Romney’s campaign and his Super PACs have outspent Gingrich’s in Florida, whose primary is tomorrow, four to one. So it’s just like your bracket. If you give money to Romney, you’ve probably picked the winner, but you’re just another drop in the bucket—he doesn’t owe you particularly much. Give to Gingrich, you’ve probably picked the loser; but if he wins, he owes you. In this case: what?

“People who know him,” the New York Times reported yesterday of Adelson, the multibillionare casino magnate, “say his affinity for Mr. Gingrich stems from a devotion to Israel as well as loyalty to a friend. A fervent Zionist who opposes any territorial compromise to make way for a Palestinian state, Mr. Adelson has long been enamored of Mr. Gingrich’s full-throated defense of Israel.” (The definitive take on Adelson remains Connie Bruck’s 2008 profile. Incidentally, the definitive take on Gingrich is probably her 1996 profile.) It is true that as early as 1995 Gingrich was pushing for things like the law (now waived by three successive presidents) that would move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But it’s not like Romney is a dove on Israel (“Governor Romney is exactly right,” Gingrich said at Thursday night’s debate after the frontrunner spoke about Israel). And Wayne Barrett has argued, persuasively, that Gingrich was actually well to Adelson’s left on Israel at various points over the last decade—among other things, he went from acknowledging that Palestinian nationhood does indeed exist to, notoriously, denying its existence last month, a line quickly echoed by Adelson himself. (Never mind that AIPAC and, at least, publicly, the Netanyahu government are to Adelson’s left in their willingness to entertain the notion of negotiating with Palestinian leadership.) It seems that Gingrich has campaigned, and promised to govern, in ways designed to land him Adelson’s money. In the post-Citizens United world of unchecked giving to ostensibly unaffiliated but strikingly on-message Super PACs, this is incredibly important.

Frequently, this blog takes stories that are seemingly not Jewish, grabs the tiny strand that is Jewish, pulls real hard, and tries to argue that the whole story is, in fact, in some suggestive or implicit or even metaphorical way, Jewish. The Adelson-Gingrich story is the opposite: it seems very Jewish (or at least Israel-related), but it really isn’t. Gingrich is almost certainly not going to be the nominee; Romney is likely to crush Gingrich by double digits tomorrow in Florida, the first state in the Republican primaries with a voting population remotely resembling the country’s (and the first, it should be said, with lots of Jews), and go on to win the nomination. The chief danger heralded by the Adelson-Gingrich relationship aren’t the particulars of Adelson’s politics. It is the prospect of an individual being willing, able, and legally permitted to fund an entire campaign and essentially to purchase an elected office. Adelson isn’t breaking any laws; you can even argue that in disclosing these donations—the disclosures are part of the point, they served a political purpose for Gingrich, but still—he is being more honest than many of Romney’s big donors. I’ll even grant that this sort of power can be used for good: Adelson apparently exerted his influence to ensure that observant Jews can vote in the Nevada caucuses Saturday. Doesn’t matter. The system stinks.

Adelson failed, this time. Will he next time? Will someone else? It isn’t a question of being good or bad for the Jews. It’s bad for practically everybody.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.