Every now and then an election comes along whose results are extremely gratifying. My man didn’t win the White House, but thank goodness an old adage I’m fond of repeating has held true: money alone can’t buy public office.
Even though she spent $50 million and lost by 11 points two years ago, the simple fact that it takes more than money to become a U.S. senator no doubt came as a surprise to professional wrestling magnate Linda McMahon.
McMahon spent $41 million this year trying to smack around Rep. Chris Murphy, the heir apparent to the retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman. Her relentless and repetitive television ads fed my desire to give up the boob tube until Thanksgiving. The ubiquitous banner ads on websites, including my own, made me want to attack the screen with a knife. In the last month of the campaign, I’d say the glossy attack flyers were showing up in my mailbox at the rate of one a day.
But for all the millions spent attacking Murphy and touting a “jobs plan” that would go nowhere in Washington anyway, McMahon scarcely performed better than she did in her 2010 battle against former state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, a wounded candidate who lied about his Vietnam war record.
Why did McMahon fail twice in a row despite emptying her bank account to the tune of more than $90 million? For the same reason many other muscular self-funders crash and burn: she was a flawed candidate. For all the handwringing about rich people buying their offices, the truth is the strategy often fails.
For every Michael Bloomberg and Jon Corzine, self-funders who won elected office multiple times, there’s a Ross Perot and a Steve Forbes, neither of whom were ever elected dog catcher but both of whom tried in vain to land in the White House.
If successful business persons or — in the case of the Kennedys — individuals who inherited vast wealth want to run for high office, they must prove themselves worthy of the office just like anyone else. Their advantage lies only in an ability to buy the staff and advertising to do the proving. Even rich candidates must stand on their own in the eyes of the electorate.
Family patriarch Joseph Kennedy was said to have provided much of the cash that fueled his son’s winning campaign for president. But the younger Kennedy had already served in the Senate and was a bona fide war hero. He had a political record and was presumed to be a man of impeccable character.
In his run for mayor of New York, Bloomberg was already well known to city residents through his vastly successful financial information company and he projected an image of confidence and a fluency with the issues facing the city.
When he funded his own successful run for California governor, action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger already was a well known (and rare) Hollywood Republican who had expressed an abiding interest in politics and public policy.
In the other corner we have the late John Connolly, the brash former Texas governor who was wounded with Kennedy in the presidential limousine that fateful day in Dallas 49 years ago. On his 1980 presidential bid, Connolly spent $11 million trying to secure the Republican nomination — a staggering sum in those days — and wound up with one delegate at the convention. I guess that Texas swagger didn’t translate terribly well to the national stage. No amount of money can make up for that. Just ask Phil Gramm and Ross Perot.
Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman spent a stupefying $144 million trying to succeed Schwarzenegger as governor of the Golden State two years ago. But it didn’t matter. In the end, voters were turned off by the way Whitman treated her domestic help and were astounded to learn that she hadn’t voted for 28 years.
So what explains McMahon’s spectacular failure? With the exception of Perot and Forbes, McMahon is the first self-funder I can recall who failed to get the message of rejection the first time. Seeing McMahon run in 2010 reminded me of the dimwitted Sarah Palin, who was clearly unprepared for the big time when she was plucked out of the Alaska tundra to become John McCain’s running mate in 2008.
If, like Palin, McMahon had taken her initial defeat to heart and gone home to bone up on the issues and prepare for another run for high office, she might have had a chance. But instead, McMahon was either delusional or intellectually lazy. She continued to speak in platitudes, avoid the media, relentlessly caricature her opponent and flood mailboxes and the airwaves with expensive propaganda.
And most shockingly, she never found a way to explain to women why she owned a company that peddled misogynistic smut. Most candidates for office are occasionally accompanied by their spouses. It humanizes them and drives home the point that candidates are human beings. But husband Vince, a professional wrestling star and promoter, was nowhere to be found.
To make matters even worse, McMahon had no record of public service for voters to examine. To be fair, 2012 wasn’t a great year for self-funders anyway. But I ask you this: would you vote for someone who clearly hadn’t learned the lessons of her first failure? What kind of legislator would she make? Fortunately, we’ll never find out.
Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com, is the editor of ctessentialpolitics.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He can be found on Twitter @terrycowgill.