As all 5-C students have voluntarily committed at least four years of their lives to California, it seems appropriate to say a few words about Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay and potentially the Terminator’s successor as the Golden State’s governor. Nowadays you can hear her on the radio making nasty remarks about her opponent, Jerry Brown, in one breath and promises of statewide reform in the next. My favorite Meg Whitman quote, though, comes from her victory speech on primary night last May: “Career politicians … be warned: you now face your worst nightmare, two businesswomen from the real world who know how to create jobs, balance budgets and get things done!” The second businesswoman Whitman refers to is Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and Republican nominee for California’s U.S. Senate seat, and the joint reference is why I like the quote. It points to an American ritual that is more alive than usual this year: large sums of money mixing with politics. This proud Yankee tradition has been given new life by a rush of self-financed multimillionaires displacing party-anointed favorites to wage senate and gubernatorial campaigns as political outsiders. Ignoring for a moment the left’s reflexive hair-tearing (CEO + Republican ? modern liberal’s anti-Christ), is there anything wrong with this trend?
Clearly, Whitman and Fiorina don’t think so—they’re publicly embracing their years in the boardroom. The same goes for Florida gubernatorial candidate and former Columbia/Hospital Corporation of America CEO Rick Scott; Connecticut senatorial candidate and former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon; and New York mayor and founder of Bloomberg Corp. Michael Bloomberg, who invested millions into an unprecedented (and successful) third campaign last year. All three not only trumpeted their years in corporate business, but poured portions of their personal fortunes into campaigns that overpowered their opponents. And why shouldn’t they? After all, in an election cycle centered on political incompetence and slow economic progress, it seems sensible to turn to outsiders with management experience who made honest mega-bucks and are now translating that cash into political clout.
Voters, though, apparently have a problem with candidates flush with cash. Bloomberg won a third term by the relatively narrow margin of four points, and Fiorina and Whitman are locked in tight races with their opponents. In Florida, another self-funded mogul, Jeff Greene, lost his primary. For whatever reason, wealth doesn’t guarantee success in this election cycle. Here’s one theory about voter ambivalence: money seems to be about all these candidates have to offer. Whitman’s and Bloomberg’s indifference to overpowering their opponents with cash may be mildly unattractive, but their political foibles are only the tip of the iceberg. Fiorina was a failure as Hewlett-Packard’s CEO, runs TV advertisements featuring demon sheep (not kidding), and got caught on tape mocking her opponent Barbara Boxer’s coiffure. (“God, what is that hair? So yesterday.”) Greene and McMahon both own disreputable yachts: Greene’s sails around the world carrying raucous partiers and crashing into Belizean coral reefs, while McMahon’s captures attention with its name, Sexy Bitch—presumably a nod to its proprietress’s years in the Wrestlemania world. Scott, the ex-Columbia/HCA executive, presided over the health-care company when it got caught defrauding Medicare, and during the primaries he failed to attend the candidates’ debate, instead sending his mother as a proxy.
None of these facts exactly scream “putting the people first,” which, all due cynicism aside, is what we’d like from our elected representatives. Instead, they point to a scary sense of self-entitlement and the feeling that fortune makes up for any lack of experience, proven judgment, or moral fiber. “I have lived the American dream,” Greene bragged to an audience of poverty-stricken listeners. Maybe, but while equal opportunity to make money is short-term parlance for the American dream, most of us would like to believe that the concept encompasses more than questing after land and lucre. After all, Thomas Jefferson opted not for the Lockean “life, liberty, and property” but rather for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” his way of acknowledging that happiness transcends materialism. Even during capitalism’s heyday in the 1950s, people watched TV shows about Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok, not Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Our generation has swapped “Leave it to Beaver” for “Jersey Shore,” but even by today’s standards, rolling over people with money and feeling overtly entitled to do so seems crass, selfish, and forebodingly self-absorbed.
Bloomberg, Fiorina and company don’t seem to grasp this concept, which makes the casual observer look kindly upon public financing as a way to push blatant opportunists out of the election cycle—or at least reduce their fundraising advantage. It is hard, however, to support political fundraising limits when you look at Arizona, where stringent public financing laws have produced a legislature full of inexperienced, right-wing representatives temperamentally opposed to compromise. And then there’s the Democrat Alvin Greene of South Carolina, a living, breathing answer to the question: Do we really want to give public funds to anyone who can produce 1,000 signatures?
In an ideal world, public opinion would succeed where legislation fails. Mass democratic campaigning is all about perception, and this crop of multimillionaires isn’t giving voters much to like. One gets the sense that the high-flying CEOs think they’re teaching the veteran politicians a lesson about effective campaigning and running a drill session for plebs on good governance. Looking at the polls, it’s fair to say that the political “lessons” of 2010 seem likely to rebound on their teachers.