The Biden Donors Fight Back

Joe Biden Attends Manhattan Beach Fundraiser
(Photo by Scott Varley via Getty Images)
Theodore Schleifer
June 29, 2021

Last week, I was talking to a top Joe Biden fundraiser who made a claim that, at first blush, I assumed was pure hyperbole. Admittedly, my question seemed crass: I asked this person point blank about the fundraising haul required to ascertain a plum ambassadorship—or to be “taken care of” in political parlance. I assumed the answer to be in the high-six figures, maybe more. But this person’s response was stunning. “I think raising money is a deterrent to getting taken care of,” they shot back. “This cycle, being a part of the money side of things is a negative.”

I rolled my eyes. “That’s crazy,” I responded. After all, it’s no news to you that rich people around the country every four or eight years partake in one of America’s most transparent, bipartisan traditions: auctioning diplomatic posts to campaign fundraisers, or bundlers. In 2016, raising $1 million might have bought an ambassadorship anywhere in the world, part of an age-old ritual through which the mega-wealthy trade the lavish perks and reputation cleansing effect of diplomatic status. Joe Kennedy, a Nazi-appeaser and bootlegger, was ambassador to the Court of St. James. Woody Johnson, a scion of minimal repute, had the same job a half century later.

But the bundler’s comment did illuminate a perspective that I do think is fundamentally correct: being a big-money ally of this sitting president doesn’t pack the same punch as it has with past inhabitants of the Oval Office. Biden is signaling that he won’t sell the traditional postings to his big-money pals, or at least won’t do so quickly. Some of those bundlers are, predictably, fuming. “They have a lot of money, and they want to be acknowledged for it,” said a different Biden bundler, who described their fundraising friends as “riled up” over what they see as a slow rollout. This time around, some donors who have raised that $1 million or more are in the dark, I’m told.

Who gets taken care of is a scintillating topic among Biden megadonor types—three of the ten that I called for this story started laughing immediately after I told them what I was writing about this week. It was a sinister laughter, too, like I had just broached the topic of what had happened to the family’s forgotten stepchild. Donors are being told to sit tight, and rich people who want something badly aren’t good at that.

I’ve covered money-in-politics for years, and campaign donors are some of America’s biggest complainers. Nothing is ever to their liking. Their frustrations this time range from the specific—Should I annoy Biden finance chair (and now White House personnel aide) Katie Petrelius? Is she even really the point person?—to a more generalized anxiety over not knowing whether they are even in contention for an embassy.

Donors have heard two main reasons for the administration’s perceived sluggishness. One is simple: The incoming White House has a ton on its plate, and dealing with naggers isn’t high up on the list. The second is more interesting: After four years of haphazard foreign policy under Donald Trump and his donor-diplomats, Biden is serious about professionalizing the foreign service. That’s not just because it’s good policy, but also because the optics of treating diplomatic outposts like party favors during a time of unprecedented wealth inequality are awful. Some of Biden’s rivals like Elizabeth Warren during the primary wanted to ban the practice altogether.

As Biden dawdles, all donors can do is remain relevant, work their angles, and shiv their rivals. Some bundlers have been waging their own shadow campaigns for unelected posts: They are collecting endorsements from political heavyweights on Capitol Hill, and soliciting affinity groups like the Latino Victory Fund or the Congressional Black Caucus. Others are scouring their networks to find entrées to Biden’s inner circle, such as siblings like Valerie Biden Owens (an Obama emissary to the U.N., herself)or hiring political aides to help them move the needle. Of course, in the spirit of Washington, all this maneuvering must be accomplished without making it blatantly obvious what exactly you’re doing. Some diplomacy is a prerequisite for a diplomatic posting.

Keeping a low profile is part of that scheming. But among the Bay Area donors said to have expressed interest in diplomatic gigs, or who are well-positioned to land one, are Jonathan Kaplan, the tech entrepreneur who most recently tried to disrupt Big Grilled Cheese as the founder of The Melt before informally advising people like Biden aide Evan Ryan during the transition; Shefali Razdan Duggal, an ebullient bundler who has been working her contacts; and Doug Hickey, the longtime Biden loyalist who is gunning to be the U.S. envoy to Italy. Denise Bauer, a high-dollar bundler who served Obama in Belgium, is considered a shoe-in for France.

I totally understand where the Biden administration is coming from. The pipeline begs to be reexamined, and I bet a lot of donors would agree with that, at least in theory, if they weren’t so obviously biased. Plus, there are more pressing issues for America and the world than whether some Hollywood actress gets to play diplomat in Prague.

But while bundlers do like to complain, bundling is not easy work, and the unspoken promise of low-stakes political appointments is the grease that makes the big-money machine run. An ambassadorship is like the goodie bag that newlyweds give their guests in exchange for schlepping to the ceremony. Tokens of appreciation matter. Or as one Biden bundler summarized the relationship to me: “People need to be thanked more.”

The current administration is signaling the end of this game, or at least wants to give that impression. But let’s not be Pollyannaish about the way the world works: Cutting out the perks of fundraising, whether it’s a V.I.P. badge at a nominating convention or an appointment to an exotic country, could make some donors less likely to participate in the process, despite bipartisan, highfalutin’ rhetoric about fundraising being a labor of love. That’s a concern that some Biden bundlers tell me they hold.

Over time, according to a Biden official, the White House expects about 30 percent of its ambassadors to be political appointees—that would be more or less in line with the average before Trump, who gave away 44 percent to his friends. But Biden’s “political appointees” are likely to be more Democratic elected officials than big-money bundlers.

In candid moments, defenders of the donor-ambassador industrial complex make two more arguments that they’re loath to make publicly. The first is that, all other things being equal, the United States is better off with rich ambassadors who can supplement the State Department entertainment budget. One bundler told me about a friend who was likely to get a position not because of the amount of money they had raised, per se, but because of their sky-high net worth. Postings in Western Europe and the Caribbean are often light on foreign policy, heavy on champagne and caviar.

The other point these people will make is that the foreign service is unduly romanticized. Some fundraisers have been advised to stretch and emphasize anything at all on their resume that suggests they are more than just a political patron. But who is to say that donors—generally accomplished business people—can’t steer the ship in the Bahamas for a few years? “Obviously and appropriately there are issues related to optics,” said yet another Biden fundraiser. “The truth of the matter is many supporters, many bundlers, many donors are highly qualified.”

So where does this leave Stratosphere readers who are angling for Antigua? Biden’s aides are preaching patience, and donors don’t think they’ll be hearing for certain who has won this absurd lottery until late this year at the earliest. The smart money says that Biden will be filling slots late into 2022.

More optimistic Democratic bundlers concede that this process is moving excruciatingly slowly but do hope that donors will eventually get their back scratched, and that the roster will eventually feature a healthy mix of experienced statesmen and fundraisers, just like it always does. After all, as one of these people noted, this wouldn’t be the first time that donors have feared being left out in the cold. President Barack Obama also talked about dismantling the revolving door, only to dole out candy in his second term.

As one veteran fundraiser put it to me—and is putting it to their less experienced peers: “Just hunker down, children.”