It's come to this: The best hope for this grand experiment in democracy may hinge on the right billionaire coming along to buy his way into the White House.
Now that we have made fundraising the benchmark against which all conventional campaigns are measured; now that it has become a requirement that big-pocketed special interests subsidize the elections of politicians who will be beholden to them; now that modestly funded, perhaps massively talented Americans need not even bother to aspire to the job (Headline from 2013 we will never see: "President Vilsack Saves Social Security, Declares Peace In Middle East"); now that the only people who get to be president are those whose privileged existence will never reflect our own - what we are left with is the hope that a wizened, unsullied fat cat who can afford to forgo the corrupting influence of campaign cash will literally buy himself the highest office in the land.
What else to give the man who has everything? Everything - except, perhaps, the ability to do the job.
Is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that perfect plutocrat? He (along with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger) sure did come off well in that recent cover story in Time: feisty, appealingly moderate, refreshingly aware of his imperfections and - most important - so filthy rich that he can defy the special interests, the powerful party bases and the media to simply do what he thinks is right. (Does he know what's right? If he's really determined to do this, it may not matter. Which is, um, why this whole idea is a little scary.)
But how else to circumvent the disgrace that currently passes for our election process? The ordeal of running for president has become so bereft of any serious attempt at finding true leadership that it has become a variation on the Groucho Marx line, "I would never join any club which would have me for a member." Instead, it's "I would never make president anyone who actually wants to be." I mean, can someone who exposes himself or herself to a level of discourse that includes "Raise your hand if you don't believe in evolution?" really be taken seriously?
In theory, Mr. Bloomberg could afford to remain his own man; whoever he is today is probably who he'll be on Election Day. Oh, his behavior and past opinions will trip him up, skeletons will fall from closets, allegiances will shift cynically as momentum accumulates.
But he won't need to care. He can hoot and holler like Howard Dean, or engage in the breathtaking hypocrisy of Mitt Romney, and he won't have to wake the next morning, flailing to keep the faithful from bolting with their checkbooks. The meltdown that can eviscerate a conventional campaign ("Say hello to Macaca!") will just be a blip to be dealt with. Money will still be in promiscuous supply.
If not Mr. Bloomberg, if not this election, some billionaire could someday very well buy himself the presidency on his own terms. In a Frank Capra movie, he would be benevolent, all things to all (well, enough) people, and the unlikely savior of this troubled land. In reality, many thought he could've been Ross Perot, who - though nutty as a Snickers bar and never a credible candidate - most likely helped Bill Clinton to become president. And in doing so, he brought us George W. Bush in rebuke. How's that working out?
Think a rich guy flirting with the presidency can't make a difference, even without coming within a mile of the White House?
Tom Matthews wrote the film "Mad City" and the novel "Like We Care." His e-mail is email@example.com.