Forward Thinking

Wanna Be an Ambassador? Sign a Check

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

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So you want to be a U.S. ambassador? Meet kings at fancy parties? Carry a black diplomatic passport?

Short of spending a career in the Foreign Service, your best shot at an ambassadorship has always been to be a major fundraiser, known as a bundler, on a successful presidential campaign.

That could change this year.

The advent of the super PACs has created a new sort of political moneyman. Now, ultra-wealthy givers to a candidate’s nominally independent super PAC can donate as much to a candidate’s cause with a single check as the best bundlers raise over the course of an entire campaign.

This new species of powerful political givers raises a question: When the next president is doling out the spoils in 2013, will major super PAC givers beat out bundlers for choice ambassadorships? And without incentives like ambassadorships, will future presidential candidates find it harder to recruit bundlers?

“Most wealthy donors don’t want a job in the administration because salaries are extremely low, but an ambassadorship can be an exception,” said David E. Lewis, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and the author of a book on presidential appointments. “I guarantee you the campaigns know who’s giving money to the super PACs and they’re noting it.”

Obama’s 2008 bundlers hold some of the most desirable ambassadorships. You can find top Obama campaign fundraisers filling our ambassadorial posts in United Kingdom, France, Spain, Finland, Switzerland, Australia, Japan, South Africa, Belgium, Portugal, and Austria. Overall, 30.9% of current ambassadors are political appointees, according to the American Foreign Service Association, a professional association for career Foreign Service officers that opposes political appointments.

While super PACs can’t coordinate with candidates during the campaign, no rules will keep contributors to the super PAC from receiving political appointments after the election, according to Meredith McGehee, policy director with the Campaign Legal Center.

“I would expect, regardless of who wins, a few of the super PAC donors probably will be rewarded” with ambassadorships, McGehee said.

McGehee said that donors to the so-called “soft money” groups, independent political committees that were disallowed in 2002, received ambassadorships after successful campaigns.

Though super PACs can raise money more efficiently than the campaign itself, 2012 presidential candidates have nevertheless elected to build networks of bundlers to fill campaign war chests. Some say that these bundlers will have the upper hand during the appointments of ambassadors come the end of the 2012 contest.

“If you just write a check to a super PAC, I don’t think it’s going to get you anywhere,” said Mel Sembler, a prominent Romney bundler and former finance chair of the Republican National Committee, drawing a distinction between the commitment made by bundlers and super PAC donors. Sembler, a real estate developer, has served as ambassador to Italy and to Australia.

There also appears to be a difference in terms of degree of wealth between super PAC donors and bundlers - a difference that could impact the demand for ambassadorial posts. Bundlers are often rich, but not necessarily be as super-wealthy as a super PAC donor who cuts his own $1 million check. So while the lifestyle of an ambassador might be a step up for a bundler, it’s hard to imagine hedge fund billionaires like John Paulson, Julian Robertson, or Paul Singer – all top Romney super PAC donors – taking a job as an ambassador.

But McGehee said that the attractiveness of an ambassadorship shouldn’t be underestimated. “They see this as a kind of topper for their career,” McGehee said of some political appointees. “Most of these really wealthy folks have pretty good-sized egos, and so they like the ego-stroke being an ambassador brings with it.”


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