What happens if you spend $141 million and nothing comes of it?
Nothing, of course!
Before autumn officially began, Republican candidate for California governor Meg Whitman had already broken the personal-spending record for American political campaigns.
When Whitman's personal campaign contribution reached $109 million in September, American democracy staggered. When her total campaign spending topped $140 million earlier this month, the Washington Post's Karen Tumulty was unable to enjoy the state's sunny climate due to the "gale force" of Whitman's spending; Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore put his bowling-ball wit into a fake attack ad; and L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote something I didn't actually read, but I'm sure it was full of spritely and righteous bemusement. Brave New Films denounced money's "corrosive effect on basic democratic principles."
And yet Whitman is almost certainly going to lose on Tuesday. Real Clear Politics' polling roundup has Jerry Brown up by high-single-to-low-double digits. InTrade's spread looks like a lock for Brown. And Whitman herself is now down to the "fighting for every vote" rhetoric -- the political equivalent of when your boss stops talking about "overdelivering" and starts talking about "going for the low-hanging fruit."
Will anybody point to the failure of eMeg's record-busting campaign splurge and revisit their commitment to getting private money out of politics?
Not likely. In the HuffPost, Public Campaign Action Fund's David Donnelly decries the "collateral damage" of campaign funding -- that it forces incumbents to work for reelection when they should be busy passing laws they haven’t read. Common Cause wheels in Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) to make the case for a "Fair Elections" system. Publicampaign.org doesn't seem to have taken any note of the Brown-Whitman race at all.
Sure, the argument against free expression in politics isn't so much that big spending guarantees victory as that it leaves the politician in thrall to special interests. (Although for that very reason the reformers should love Whitman, who has financed about 85 percent of her campaign out of her own pocket.) But somewhere in here shouldn't we consider whether all this money has a practical effect on the outcome of an election?
Tumulty notes that Whitman's personal spending follows a longstanding California tradition of self-financing political washouts including Al Checchi, Bill Simon and Michael Huffington. (Actually, considering that the residue of Huffington's political career is still with us, maybe we should worry about rich people in politics.)
Finally, I don't know whether I should be flattered or troubled that Jerry Brown's campaign seems to have picked up on my Whitman putdown from a while back: