“Why did you let your husband spend $80 million trying to buy a seat in the Senate?” Betty Friedan once asked Arianna Huffington on an episode of Firing Line. Huffington corrected Friedan: It was a mere $30 million. “He could have spent $30 million buying a boat or a bad Picasso,” she shrugged. “Instead he chose to spend it promoting some major ideas of the country.”
With $97 million, Linda McMahon could have made off with a good Picasso. But in Arianna’s spirit of exceedingly prosperous optimism I suggest we reconsider McMahon’s eight-year expenditure, which the L.A. Times says bought “zilch.” Zilch is our baseline. I think she got more than zilch. For one thing, she can go to sleep knowing she has done more than most of us ever will to reduce income inequality. The New York Times has an extensive report on who benefited from the money McMahon sprinkled throughout the land, including a balloon store, a pizza place, a sushi restaurant, and the 200 people she temporarily employed.
For another, McMahon has bought herself some reputational capital. In 2009, she was the woman who played out fake feuds with her real husband in between wrestling bouts on national television. Today she’s a two-time Republican nominee for Senate, which in some quarters counts as more serious. She’ll be invited to give talks and host lunches and mentor other women in business. She’ll be associated with both steroidal kayfabe and small business development instead of just steroidal kayfabe. More than zilch.
What about all those donors who sunk millions into losing campaigns? My time working for a donor-funded magazine convinced me that people often misunderstand the nature of donation and over-simplify the expected return. Sheldon Adelson wanted Newt to go all the way—mine the moon while invading Iran and lecturing all of us on fundamental transformational change, frankly. But even as he watched that beautiful dream slip away, he no doubt enjoyed the pleasure of being considered a player in a game that’s considerably higher status than casino building whilst having a Republican presidential candidate at his beck and call. Donations confer a sense of power over powerful people. Private equity manager Marc Leder, who played host to the party that led to the 47 percent debacle, got Mitt Romney to come to his own house and tell him that the rest of the country was sponging off of his estimable powers of wealth-creation. He got to watch a grown man beg, and isn’t that what we all want, really?
Romney’s campaign was not hopeless, but even if it had been, some people still would have donated. Over this election cycle plenty of people contributed to entirely quixotic campaigns they knew would not end in glory. They did so for the same reason that some Houstonians voted for Obama and some Angelenos voted for Romney. Donating and voting are mirror acts of expressive identity. Yes, I would also take the Picasso over a losing campaign. But Linda McMahon is almost a billionaire, and Sheldon Adelson is a billionaire 20 times over. It’s never either/or for them. They can have both.