The audacity of ego

Mitt Romney has, so far, reportedly spent $35 million on his failing campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. Just think about it for a moment — $35 million. Inhale deeply, put your pinky finger up to your mouth a la Dr. Evil and say with me: Thirty-five meeeellion dollars!

What else could Romney have done with that money? He could, of course, have plowed it back into his entrepreneurial efforts and made lots of people lots more money — returns four times better than the S&P 500 if the Bain & Co. promotional materials are to be believed.

But apparently he wants to “help” people, not just make them money. Well, with $35 million he could have helped send more than 3,000 low-income children to private school from kindergarten through the 8th grade. The number would actually be higher because the money could be invested and the pot could grow even larger while the kids worked their way through school.

Or, he could have expressed his deep love for the faith of his fathers by giving the dough to the LDS welfare services operation, which assists the victims of disaster all over the globe. Sticking with education, he could have handed the money over to his alma mater, Brigham Young University, on the condition that it go to pay full freight for Mormons from low-income families.

Or, he could have used it to help the National Multiple Sclerosis Society — “the single largest private sponsor of MS research in the world” — fund efforts to find a cure for the disease that his wife Ann has so courageously battled.

Or … whatever. I’m not normally in the habit of telling obscenely rich people how to spend their money, but the truth is that nearly any use of the money would have made more sense, and been more laudable, than the purpose to which it has gone. Not only has Romney wasted $35 million (so far) on a broken political sector that cannot be “transformed” by a single man — yes, even the president — but he has done it in service of ideas that make “garden variety” seem exotic by comparison.

(New Jersey’s Jon Corzine is even guiltier of this offense, spending more than $100 million of his fortune to win a Senate seat and then the governorship. Wow, a liberal Democrat governing New Jersey? There hadn’t been one of those since … the guy who immediately preceded him!)

One could argue that a rich man pouring money into a political candidacy in service of an idea that otherwise won’t get a fair hearing — Steve Forbes pushing a flat tax, Ross Perot stressing fiscal discipline — is doing something to, in an inchoate fashion, nudge the national debate in a different direction. I’m not sure political campaigns are the best way of promoting out-of-the-box ideas, but at least a plausible case could be made.

But the hallmark of Romney’s campaign has been his painfully awkward lurches to grab hold of the most widely shared and worst ideas the Republican Party has to offer — everything from doubling the size of our illegal detention camp in Guantanamo Bay to impeding promising scientific research to building a wall in a vain effort to stop peaceful people from crossing an imaginary line to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Thirty-five million dollars. What an enormous waste of scarce resources, and done in the name of helping people. That amount could supply 2,500 pumps to bring clean drinking water to African children, one of whom dies every 15 seconds from a water-related disease. Instead, Romney spent $35 million to buy TV ads to tell voters why he has recently come to support the National Review’s line on the issues.

No, it is worse than that. Because the truth is that the differences between Romney and McCain are not significant. Both support a war without end in Iraq. Both (now) support building a wall on our border without doing anything to make legal the freely exchanged labor of people without the proper government permission slips. He has steadfastly refused to criticize the spectacularly terrible Dubya & Co. except in superficial, technocratic terms. So, what excuse does Romney have left to explain why he wasted $35 million on politics when it could have been put to manifestly nobler ends?

The answer: ego. Mitt Romney is apparently the kind of man who looks at the $3 trillion federal budget and says, “The only thing wrong with this mess is that someone else is in charge of it.”

The notion that what the country needs is the same old government-centric approach to solving problems but someone just a little bit smarter to implement it is profoundly and tragically misguided, but Romney’s delusions of grandeur are especially laughable given his mediocre record in political office.

After all, the signature achievement of his governorship in Massachusetts is that he helped give a tax, spend (and spend again!), mandate and regulate approach to health care a Republican imprimatur.

Whether Romney’s decision to waste $35 million (so far) on politics is driven more by a disturbing distrust of civil society, a naive faith in the power of government, or a truly alarming and totally unjustified messianism is unclear. I do know this much: He could have bought a lot of magic underwear and hair gel with that money. It would have been money much better spent.

(Also posted to Sinners in the Hands of Angry Blog.)