Friday, June 01, 2007
Bill Gates spends $60 million and no one listens!
Summary: Bill Gates and another billionaire want to put education on the 2008 election agenda. They're spending $60 million in ads. But they're not doing it very competently, it seems...
Billionaires and Bake Sales
By TIMOTHY EGAN
Published: June 2, 2007
Following Bill Gates over the years has been like watching Pete Townshend go from smashing his guitar with The Who to the aging master who just wants world peace and a complex string arrangement of “Tommy.” He was the high-voiced bully boy of Microsoft, snarling at people with less intellectual bandwidth, a Napoleon Dynamite with money — idiots!
But all of that changed when Mr. Gates and his wife, Melinda, decided to get serious about giving away their money, a net worth greater than the gross domestic product of more than half of the nations of the world. He brought his laser focus to ending malaria, the spread of infectious diseases, global inequity, computer illiteracy. This from a man whose name was Google-bombed with Satan.
Over time, the Gates Foundation has become not just an extraordinary force for change, but something of a shadow State Department as well, attracting hundreds of world leaders to the city on Puget Sound. In places, the foundation is more effective, and certainly more beloved and influential, than the current denizens of Foggy Bottom in the other Washington.
So, when President Hu Jintao of China came to the U.S. last year, he was feted at a grand dinner in the Gates’ home on Lake Washington. In the Capitol, Mr. Hu was snubbed by President Bush with a quickie lunch and a gaffe-prone reception complete with heckler — typical incompetence.
Now Mr. Gates wants to influence the upcoming presidential election. But his efforts to date show that he still has much to learn about getting American politicians to pay attention. And his latest venture is a prime example of just how nonresponsive our political system is to issues that may be widely supported by the public, but barely rate with the candidates.
Mr. Gates and Eli Broad, a fellow billionaire, said they will spend $60 million in an effort to get the candidates to talk about: schools! They have assembled a bipartisan group to point out such inconvenient facts as the million students who drop out of American high schools every year, or that the U.S. ranks near the bottom of industrialized nations in functional understanding of math and science.
The campaign could use a little remedial schooling. Three of the Republican candidates don’t even believe in evolution. Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology.
By any measure, $60 million is no small change. It is far more than the National Rifle Association or the National Education Association — two vaunted, entrenched interest groups — spent in the 2004 campaign. And it is nearly triple what it cost to Swift Boat John Kerry’s war record, an effective if dishonest campaign.
Most special interest groups can rally members and donate cash to politicians. The education group, called Strong American Schools, cannot support individual candidates or legislation, by the rules of their organization. Thus, the world’s richest man has little leverage in a wide-open presidential campaign.
At the early debates, the Gates’ group took out ads and held press conferences. But what did it get them? The candidates barely mentioned education, and when they did it was couched in the tired talking points tailored to their interest groups — vouchers and charter schools for Republicans, the untouchable teachers’ union for Democrats.
Education is such an orphan issue that Senator John McCain doesn’t even mention it on his Web site. If only Mr. Gates wanted to strip away environmental protections or weaken consumer laws — that would get the candidates’ attention. Witness the timber industry hacks who now guide the Forest Service after a decade of Republican contributions, or the bankers who bought a new bankruptcy law that makes it harder for poor people to stay out of credit card hell.
“We’re trying to create a Sputnik moment, to get people to see that our very economic future is at stake,” said Mr. Broad, a lifelong Democrat who says the party is too beholden to the teachers’ union.
To be fair, the new campaign is just getting started, and it may yet be split off into a group that has the legal flexibility to rate the candidates — which may be the more effective way to go.
Tomorrow, when Democratic candidates assemble for yet another debate, it is unlikely they will answer the hard questions that Mr. Gates is asking. But if he used that $60 million more directly, with muscle, the candidates would talk and talk and talk. Otherwise, it’s all apple pie at an empty bake sale.