Tom Steyer has struggled for months for relevance in the 2020 presidential race. On Tuesday night he got it, albeit very briefly — and not at all the way he probably envisioned.
Here’s how it happened: Steyer, a wealthy businessman who is self-funding his bid for the Democratic nomination, had just finished up debating with five of his rivals. What better way to cap the night than say your goodbyes to your new friends, right? Mind as well stroll over to Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders having a little chat- OH WAIT OH MY GOD NO.
If you’ve been on another planet for the last 48 hours, I’m talking about this:
As Sanders and Warren each accused the other of calling them a liar, there’s good ole Tom Steyer just kind of standing there. Awkwardly. Actually, “awkwardly” doesn’t capture it. What does capture it? Maybe this: You go out to dinner with a married couple you’re friends with. As you walk up to the table, they are just finishing up a VERY heated argument. Cue loud chair scraping as you sit down and say: “I don’t want to get in the middle. I just want to say hi, Bernie.”
Oh wait. That’s actually exactly what Steyer said in an attempt to extricate himself from the world’s most uncomfortable situation. Which honestly isn’t all that bad given that he was coming up with it on the fly and had to be flustered by the whole you’re-a-liar-no-you’re-the-liar thing he was witnessing play out between Sanders and Warren. Sanders, because he is Sanders and also because he was likely somewhat flustered by the Warren confrontation, offered Steyer this: “Yeah, good, OK.” Oomph.
And because — as I mentioned — Steyer is desperately seeking relevance, he almost immediately looked to capitalize on being a witness to a major moment in the race. “Just want to say hi, America,” tweeted Steyer on Wednesday night. Which is funny!
Unfortunately for Steyer, accidentally walking into a big fight between two major contenders is both a) a metaphor for his candidacy to date and b) the one thing history may remember when the words “Tom Steyer’s presidential campaign” are uttered in future decades.
Steyer has been kicking around Democratic politics for several years now — using his personal wealth to fund campaigns to draw public attention to the urgent threat posed by climate change and, more recently, to the need to impeach President Donald Trump. In this presidential race, Steyer’s spending — more than $142 million on TV and digital ads to date, according to CNN’s David Wright — has given him a foothold(ish) in early voting states like South Carolina and Nevada. Which has allowed him to qualify for several more recent presidential debates even as some of his better-known opponents have failed to make the stage.
But as was apparent during the actual debate on Tuesday night, Steyer simply doesn’t belong on the stage with the top tier candidates. He looked deeply out of his depth on foreign policy — he said he was qualified to lead on that issue because he had traveled extensively internationally — and felt, throughout, like an afterthought.
So, yeah. Well, look on the bright side: We’ll always have “I don’t want to get in the middle. I just want to say hi.”