Want to Be an Ambassador? Here’s Your Bill

It’s well known that a portion of high-profile ambassadorships (around 30 percent, usually) go to big-money donors or powerful friends of the president. And two Penn State profs have calculated, broadly, how much it costs and where each is likely to go. But Chicago’s Louis Susman proves that you can get there by being a bit of both.

Louis Susman
Louis Susman with the Queen

 

My colleague Carol Felsenthal has been following the ins and outs of Barack Obama’s ambassadorial appointees—where they come from (Chicago, in some instances), how they get there… and how much money they pay to do so. Not all ambassadorships go to donors and bundlers; the ones in dangerous, difficult places are reserved for foreign-policy professionals who usually come up through the ranks of the foreign service—people like Kelly Degnan, political advisor to the U.S. Mission to NATO, whom I interviewed during the summit.

Cushier gigs, typically European slots, usually come with a substantial price tag, as Felsenthal writes:

Whether or not Louis Susman and Charles Rivkin would really like to stay on for a second term, they will soon be thanked for their service and asked to vacate their mansions on Regent’s Park in London and avenue Gabriel in Paris, so that a second collection of  bundlers can claim their places. When I interviewed her in 2009, the Center for Responsive Politics’s executive director, Sheila Krumholtz, described ambassador placement as a “donor rewards program.”

So, yeah, that’s the deal. Which leads to the obvious question: how much do I need to drum up for a posh post on avenue Gabriel? It’d be embarrassing to cut too small a check and end up in, say, New Zealand, or to not understand how the system works and get shipped off to Finland instead of sunny South America. Fortunately, two IR professors from Penn State—Johannes W. Fedderke and Dennis C. Jett—built a model on which to base your suggested donation (via Nicholas Confessore), asking the question: “What Price the Court of St. James?” (i.e. the UK ambassadorship, currently held by Susman).

First, here’s your ballpark figure if you want to go to Europe:

From the probability values the implication is that the overwhelming impact of campaign  contributions is on postings to Western Europe. The implication is that personal contributions of $550,000  and $750,000 generate a 90% probability of appointment to a West European posting for personal and  bundled campaign contributors respectively. [The estimates are lower for bundlers, perhaps because bundling isn’t just raising money, it’s building connections; the data for bundler amounts also isn’t as good.]

Want to stay on this side of the Atlantic? Then it’s more about who you know:

Politically Connected appointees are statistically significantly more likely to be posted in the Caribbean,  North and Central America. Specifically, the fact that an appointee has political connections to the president,  statistically significantly raises the probability that their posting will occur in the Caribbean, North and  Central America relative to that of a career diplomat from 5% to 30%.

It’s not that politically connected appointees don’t have to cough up money, it’s just not as much. Of the 44 political appointee ambassadors the authors count in Obama’s tenure through 2011, about 40 percent brought in less than $100,000. Having actual expertise can bring the price down—the authors found two instances, Saudi Arabia and Mexico, where the appointees had think-tank experience, making the candidates good fits for desirable but politically sensitive countries.

For ambassadorial candidates seeking the most desirable positions, the authors calculated two models, one based on GDP and another on tourism; somewhere with high values for both is assumed to have both a high standard of living (GDP) and to be generally awesome (tourism). Their models generate some odd numbers, though. For instance the tourism metric for Luxembourg results in a negative number. Actual ambassadors to Luxembourg have had to generate real money:

Obama had first appointed Cynthia Stroum, a Seattle businesswoman who raised more than $500,000 for his 2008 campaign, to the coveted job in September 2009. She resigned in January after an internal report blasted her management, saying among other things that career staff wanted to get away from her so badly they were requesting transfers to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The White House has nominated Florida real estate developer Robert A. Mandell to take her place. Like Stroum, Mandell is an Obama bundler, one of an elite corps of fundraisers who collect from $50,000 to more than $500,000 from friends and business associates. Mandell raised more than $200,000 for the 2008 Obama campaign, records show.

You can see the flaw in the tourism metric—only 667,000 tourists visit Luxembourg every year, according to the CIA factbook. But it’s centrally located, extremely wealthy, and from what I hear a pleasure to live in, especially if you just can’t decide between France and Germany. So you have to look at both metrics and use common sense. The estimated bundler contribution for Luxembourg based on GDP is $1,775,458, which is way too high, because Luxembourg is rich but boring. The estimated bundler contribution based on tourism is -$106,658, which is silly.

So what price the Court of St. James specifically? The UK job brings a price of $640,583 to $1,659,618. Lou Susman only brought in $500k, which the authors call a puzzle: ” the appointees [to the United Kingdom and Austria] underpaid for the post they  received, on both the GDP and the tourist metric. What is more, there is no recorded political connection  to members of the administration, nor do they bring special think tank-like expertise to bear on the posting.”

Ah, but Susman is connected to everyone, as Felsenthal wrote in her profile of the Chicago lawyer and banker, and has been for ages:

Since his early days as a lawyer in Missouri, Susman had kept a hand in politics. “He just kind of appeared one day [in 1968] and said that he’d like to work on [Tom Eagleton’s Senate] campaign,” recalls Barbara Eagleton. The candidate stuck the young lawyer with the job nobody wanted—putting the arm on others to write checks. Eagleton won that race and went on to win two more, always with Susman raising the money.

And he gave something to Obama that money can’t buy:

Presidential hopefuls soon came calling—Ted Kennedy in 1980, Dick Gephardt in 1988, Bill Bradley in 2000, John Kerry in 2004. Susman got to know Barack Obama in 2002, at a time when hardly anyone outside Chicago had heard of him. That year, Susman introduced Obama to John Kerry—the introduction, says Susman, that led to Obama’s keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 and “launched Barack Obama into the national spotlight.”

Susman pushed Obama hard on fellow Democrats during his rise to the presidency. He’s a politically connected appointee, but it took years of hustling to build his political capital. And he’s also a contributor appointee, but his political capital earned him a big discount on his actual capital.

 

Photograph: U.S. Department of State

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