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Sheldon Adelson Has Finally Found an Issue He Can Truly Influence

AFP/Getty Images

Last year, at the height of campaign season, I noted the astonishing amount of money that casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, had pledged to various Republican causes, most notably groups working to elect Mitt Romney (as it turns out, Adelson likely spent close to the $100 million he had promised). I suggested that, since Adelson has a predilection for guiding his political donations toward causes that coincide with his business interests and has affiliates under criminal investigation by both Chinese and U.S. authorities, perhaps Romney et al. should reconsider accepting so much of his money—sums so huge they are, effectively, un-returnable. For my troubles I was basically called an anti-Semite, since, after all, Adelson is a proud Jew, and foremost among his causes is an extremely hawkish brand of support for Israel.

If you like, you can read my attempt to disavow any hatred in my heart for the Jewish people. But the important observation about Adelson is that his pro-Israel advocacy is his least problematic cause, because it doesn’t directly benefit his business and thus isn’t corrupt in the same way, and also it is extremely unlikely to be particularly efficacious. By contrast, in Adelson’s rabid anti-union activities, one sees a businessman, in a service industry, whose American center is a strong labor state, using his outsize wealth to weaken his corporate adversaries. In his allegedly using political connections to scuttle a House bill that would have condemned China’s human rights record before the Beijing Olympics, one sees a businessman who does the majority of his business in Chinese territories kowtowing to that government.

And this week, in Adelson’s reported pledge to spend massive amounts to illegalize online gambling, one sees a businessman in the casino industry attempting to exert influence on the way gambling is regulated. It is classic (attempted) influence-buying. Sure, it is possible that the planned Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling is motivated purely by the best angels of Adelson’s nature. And it is intriguing that Adelson’s anti–online gambling position puts him at odds with his competitors (who, in The Washington Post’s appropriately dry phrase, “question his concern about the social costs of Internet gambling”). But I am going to … bet that Adelson is acting out of self-interest here, as he does everywhere else. (In fact, since he professes concern for online gambling’s potential to tarnish the reputation of his industry, he admits he is acting partly out of self-interest.)

Adelson’s efforts stand a good chance of working. “The new push against Internet gambling is Adelson’s biggest foray into a legislative debate directly related to his business, and it sets up a test of the influence that a mega-donor can exert when lawmakers know he is willing to spend enormous sums to influence elections,” the Post reports. He has already enlisted bipartisan validators, retained the services of two top D.C. lobbying firms, and also engaged lobbyists in several state capitals.

As the Iranian nuclear negotiations show, the United States’ policies regarding Israel are a massive collection of moving, semi-interlocked parts involving hundreds and hundreds of politicians, aides, executive branch and military officials, outside advisers, scientists, foreign countries. Adelson’s spending there could never hope to make more than a dent. By contrast, it is openly admitted that in tidier realms directly related to how he makes his money, he is perceived as able to buy influence. It’s the definition of corruption. Anyone on any side of the aisle who claims to care about democracy should have something to say about it.