Tonight's GOP Debate: Sheldon Adelson's Malignant Tentacles

Las Vegas Sands Corp. CEO Sheldon Adelson speaks at the Global Gaming Expo Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/J
Las Vegas Sands Corp. CEO Sheldon Adelson speaks at the Global Gaming Expo Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

What, one wonders, most worries his rivals about Marco Rubio in tonight's GOP debate. His rising poll numbers? His smooth memorization of talking points? His faux-Churchillian pronouncements on the "clash of civilizations"? Nope. What Rubio's fellows feel on the backs of their neck is the warm breath of their host, Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

Perhaps incautiously, the RNC paid court to Adelson by sticking the debate in what is essentially his living room, the Venetian Hotel. Promptly all campaigns but Rubio's worried aloud that Adelson would pack the house with ringers primed to cheer the Senator's every declamation -- swaying the viewing audience, the pundits and, within hours, the polls. But whether Adelson tilts this debate is the least of it. For Adelson means not only to pick the party's nominee, but to dictate his thoughts. Indeed, perhaps the most important subtext to tonight's contest is who emerges as the leading alternative to the toxic Donald Trump or the rising hard-right appeal of Ted Cruz. And as to this, there is no single factor more important than the verdict of Sheldon Adelson.

So who is Adelson and how has he become a leading GOP kingmaker and, incongruously, its intellectual wellspring in areas vital to the national interest? The "who" is simple: an 82-year-old college dropout whose shrewd mercantile instinct has made him -- at an estimated $25 billion -- swollen in wealth and ego. The "how" is Citizens United, which empowers Adelson to demand obeisance from would-be presidents desperate for his largess.

And there's a lot of it. In the presidential cycle of 2012, Adelson spent an estimated $150 million to support Republican candidates and causes. The congressional elections of 2014 saw Adelson investing another $25 million. He compounded this leverage by funding the Republican Jewish Coalition, whose annual meeting attracts avid donors imbued with Adelson's vision. Hence the spectacle of the "Adelson primary" in which Republican hopefuls scurry to Las Vegas to swear fealty to Adelson's distinctive worldview. More than anyone else, it is Adelson -- not voters, candidates, or experts on the Middle East -- who dictates what Republicans dare to think and say about our relationship to Israel, the Palestinians on the West Bank, and the complex government of Iran. And what the candidates say about these subjects -- in tonight's debate and elsewhere -- will dictate the winner of Adelson's approval and, quite possibly, the party's nominee. Perhaps, ultimately, our president.

There is no better illustration of how money corrupts public policy. For Adelson is an intellectual primitive whose ignorance and bellicosity is impervious to thought. His view of Palestinians is astoundingly ahistorical: overlooking that Arabs have lived on the West Bank for roughly 14 centuries before Israel was founded, he calls Palestinians "an invented people" whose "only purpose [for existing] is to destroy Israel." In Adelson's mind, to the last man, woman and child these murderous nonentities "don't want the Jews or any other religion to be alive."

But not to worry. To Adelson's God, Israel's solution to the Palestinians is biblically ordained: annexation of the West Bank and subjugation of its peoples. After all, Adelson says, "God didn't talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state. [If] Israel isn't going to be a democratic state -- so what?" When Adelson acknowledges the limits of his knowledge -- "I don't know the difference between the Shia and the Sunni" -- it is to dismiss the need for knowledge itself. Arabs, after all, are all alike. Thus his suggestion for protecting Israel from Iran: the US should drop a nuclear bomb in the Iranian desert and, should that not induce the required attitude adjustment, annihilate Tehran and its inhabitants with nuclear weapons. As with the Palestinians, the purity of Sheldon's vision is untainted by mere geopolitical or humanitarian considerations.

All this would be the babblings of a senescent uncle save that, as Adelson so gracefully puts it, he's "the richest Jew in the world" and, as such, determined to bend the world to his views. Thus his ambitions include not only picking America's president but Israel's prime minister -- specifically, his close friend and ally Benjamin Netanyahu. But unlike America, Israel has strict limitations on political contributions. So Adelson found another vehicle for keeping Netanyahu in power -- buying newspapers.

At the estimated cost of $30 million a year, Adelson's principal newspaper is little more than an Israeli Pravda, a daily blast of political advertising trumpeting Netanyahu and his policies. In order to expand its readership and undercut the competition, Adelson underwrites its free distribution, giving this propaganda vehicle Israel's largest circulation. To this megaphone Adelson has lately added another paper, while threatening traditional newspapers with yet more competition unless they skew their reportage to Adelson's liking. Thomas Friedman puts it well: "Adelson personifies everything that is poisoning our democracy and Israel's today -- swaggering oligarchs, using huge sums of money to try to bend each system to their will."

To elect his own president in 2016, Adelson has doubled down on his imperiousness. When Chris Christie referred to the West Bank -- with perfect accuracy -- as "the occupied territories." Adelson extracted a groveling personal apology for failing to acknowledge that this land, home to several million Palestinians, was granted by Adelson's God to the Jewish people. When Jeb Bush adviser James Baker was scheduled to speak at a meeting of J Street, a pro-Israeli group that supports a two-state solution, Adelson demanded -- unsuccessfully, for once, to Bush's credit -- that Bush cut off all ties with Baker or, at least, prevent him from speaking. In either case Adelson's message to Republican candidates is clear: kowtow to me or my money will go elsewhere -- or into taking you down. Thus an informed observation of tonight's debate includes this key piece of knowledge: in shaping their rhetoric and responses, Rubio and others are shadowed by the need to keep Sheldon Adelson happy.

But keeping Adelson happy involves more than slavishly following his views on Israel, the Palestinians or Iran. When internet gambling threatened his casino revenues, Adelson spurred the introduction of federal legislation to ban it. Adelson faces litigation centered on his alleged involvement in bribing Chinese officials to favor his gambling interests in Macau, which sparked a federal investigation under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act -- Adelson wants the law amended, and needs protection from the potential suspension of his casino license in Nevada.

And then, unsurprisingly, there's taxes. "Why," Adelson grumbled aloud, "is it fair that I should be paying a higher percentage of taxes than anyone else?" But succor for this hardship may be at hand. In 2012, he put millions behind Mitt Romney; in turn, Romney's proposed tax cuts stood to give Adelson an estimated $2 billion return on investment. In 2016, the tax cuts proposed by several GOP aspirants -- most particularly, Rubio -- could generate a commensurate windfall.

Which brings us back to why the other candidates have worried that Adelson will stack tonight's debate audience in favor of Marco Rubio. After strenuously courting the casino magnate, the one-term senator has been widely favored to win the Adelson primary, with many expecting an endorsement promptly after the debate. This could have enormous consequences for the selection of the GOP's nominee: should Adelson give Rubio, say, $50 million to fund him during the primary season, he could carpet bomb his rivals with advertising from primary to primary, potentially quelling the nativist surge of Donald Trump, while fighting off the rhetorical red meat that has driven Ted Cruz to second place in the latest national polls.

But even setting aside the problem of Trump and Cruz -- whose bluster Rubio is likely to counter with pseudo-toughness of his own -- the pressure on Rubio to ingratiate himself with Adelson has been ratcheted up still more. Unlike Trump and Cruz, Rubio is not gaining traction in the early primary states. Reportedly Miriam Adelson, Sheldon's equally hawkish wife, is newly enamored with Cruz' hard-line rhetoric on Israel, creating the possibility that Adelson will withhold his endorsement. This, quite possibly, would be a death blow to Rubio's candidacy.

Rubio's anxiety about this was already on display two weeks ago at a Washington meeting of the RJC, which drew all 14 Republican contenders. Shamelessly, the senator conflated the Palestinians with Iran and ISIS, saying "that we must not separate the threat to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv from the threat to Paris" and that "Israel stands on the front lines of our civilizational struggle against radical, apocalyptic Islam." Tonight's debate will be all the more telling in terms of whether, or how, Rubio's performance is skewed by his rising desperation to keep Adelson from slipping away. For at every step until now, Rubio has been acutely conscious of the obeisance Adelson demands: according to an Adelson advisor, Rubio calls every two weeks to solicit his would-be patron's attention and advice. "It's impressive," the man says. "Rubio is persistent."

And malleable. Adelson wants Israel to annex the West Bank; recently, Rubio has taken to saying that "now is not the time" for the US to advance a two-state solution. Adelson loathes the multinational nuclear deal with Iran; Rubio vows to scrap it. Adelson wants his taxes cut; Rubio's cuts appear to promise him the largest reduction -- while promising the country a drastic increase in the deficit. And, in July, Rubio signed on to co-sponsor Adelson's pet bill against Internet gambling.

"People buy into my agenda," Rubio says of this decision. "I don't buy into theirs." Perhaps a fierce antipathy to internet gambling ferments deep within Rubio's soul. But a GOP operative sees Rubio's new embrace of this issue another way: "It's pandering to the one guy who matters most."

Tonight, as always, that "one guy "will be ever vigilant. And so should we.