What's the biggest political lesson of 2012? Some say it's that money doesn't count all that much. Even though billionaires and big corporations poured huge amounts into the 2012 election, they lost big. They learned the lesson and won't try to buy another election.
It's true their political investments didn't exactly pay off this time around.
Republican operative Karl Rove's two giant political funds -- American Crossroads (a super PAC) and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies (a so-called nonprofit "social welfare organization" that doesn't have to report its donors) -- backed Mitt Romney with $127 million spent on more than 82,000 television spots.
Mr. Rove's groups spent another $51 million on House and Senate races. Ten of the 12 Senate candidates they supported lost. The return on investment for American Crossroads donors turned out to be just 1 percent.
Among Mr. Rove's investors was Sheldon Adelson -- the billionaire who owns the Las Vegas Sands Corp. -- who invested more than $100 million in the election, mostly on Republicans who lost.
Mr. Adelson wasn't alone, of course. Texas industrialist Harold Simmons invested $26.9 million; TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts invested close to $13 million; a network organized by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch invested $400 million. Most of their investments failed.
But if you think these losses mean the end of high-stakes political investing, you don't know how these people work.
If and when they eventually win, these billionaires will earn back many multiples of whatever they invested. Their taxes will plummet. Many of the laws constraining their profits (such as environmental laws preventing the Koch brothers from more depredations, and the anti-bribery Foreign Corrupt Practices Act that Mr. Adelson is being investigated for violating) will disappear. And what's left of labor unions will no longer intrude on their bottom lines.
They have enough dough to keep betting until they eventually win. That's what it means to be a billionaire political investor: You're able to keep playing the odds until you get the golden ring.
Looking ahead, Mr. Adelson told The Wall Street Journal he's ready to double his 2012 investment next time around. "I happen to be in a unique business where winning and losing is the basis of the entire business," he said. "So I don't cry when I lose. There's always a new hand coming up." He isn't looking back at his losses: "I know in the long run we're going to win."
Exactly. Mr. Adelson, Mr. Simmons, the Koch brothers and other billionaires will keep pouring in as much money as it takes to eventually win -- until they're stopped. And procurers like Mr. Rove will make sure they stay at the gaming table -- until the table is taken away.
Relative to their assets, the billionaire investors have been playing for a pittance. Forbes magazine estimates Mr. Adelson's net worth at $21.5 billion. His Las Vegas Sands Corp. just approved a special dividend paying him about $1.2 billion this year, ahead of any possible tax increases that might emerge from congressional budget negotiations.
In the meantime, he and other billionaire political investors are profiting from their reputations as high-stakes players.
Mr. Adelson told The Wall Street Journal he has many friends in Washington, "but the reasons aren't my good looks and charm. It's my pocket personality," referring to his political investments. And his determination to keep playing the odds ensures his Washington friends will continue to pay attention.
Earlier this month, he met separately with House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (the Adelsons invested $10 million in super PACs affiliated with Messrs. Boehner and Cantor), possibly to discuss changes to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
As income and wealth become ever more concentrated in America, the nation's billionaire political investors will invest more and more.
Their losses in 2012 won't deter them. Our democracy is still for sale to the highest bidders. A record $6 billion was spent on the 2012 campaign, of which outside groups poured $1.3 billion, according to data from the Federal Election Commission and the Center for Responsive Politics.
That's why Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission must be reversed -- either by a Supreme Court that becomes aware of the poison it's unleashed into our democracy, or by constitutional amendment.
It's also why we need legislation mandating full disclosure of who contributes what to whom. And public financing that matches public money to contributions from small donors.
Most fundamentally, it's why we must reverse the scourge of widening inequality.
Robert B. Reich, Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California and former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is the author of "Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it," a Knopf release now out in paperback.