Why do we keep thinking business experience makes great politicians?

By Ben Adler
June 14, 2011

By Ben Adler
The views expressed are his own.

In Mitt Romney’s speech announcing his presidential candidacy earlier this month, Romney made his campaign message clear: Obama has failed to generate sufficient economic or job growth, and only a businessman like Romney can do so. “Barack Obama has failed America,” said Romney. “When he took office, the economy was in recession. He made it worse. And he made it last longer.”

Romney followed with a ream of statistics and stories of struggling families. Then he pivoted: “The American ideals of economic freedom and opportunity need a clear and unapologetic defense, and I intend to make it — because I have lived it.” What comes next is the stirring story of how Romney, as a consultant with Bain Capital, helped companies lay off workers –- or rather, helped companies compete in the global economy. Lest the message were muffled, Romney’s Website’s issue page features only four tabs, the first two of which are “jobs” and “fiscal responsibility.”

The longstanding American assumption that making money in the private sector qualifies a person for high public office lately seems to have extended to some truly outlandish would-be candidates: Donald Trump was recently leading the Republican polls, former pizza chain CEO Herman Cain is on the rise. And of course, Ross Perot won 19 percent of the vote in 1992.

But does “success” in business translate into effective campaigning or governing? The recent record suggests it doesn’t.

In practice, despite public affection for corporate candidates, many prove to be their own worst enemies. Just last year California Republicans learned this the hard way when they nominated former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina for Senate. Fiorina was caught on camera making catty remarks about her opponent, Sen. Barbara Boxer, and made the most notoriously ham-handed commercial of the campaign, known as “demon sheep.” Fiorina lost despite outspending Boxer in a banner year for Republicans.

Some of the GOP’s most embarrassing candidates in 2010 were business executives. Consider small business investor and Nazi impersonator Rich Iott in Ohio’s 9th district, or Carl Paladino, the Republican gubernatorial nominee in New York, who made headlines for his extremist stances, physical threats towards reporters and out of wedlock lovechild. These candidates falsify the claim that business experience necessarily translates into political virtues such as tact or good campaign management.

Even victorious business-credentialed candidates aren’t necessarily able to translate their experience into superior economic performance along the lines that Romney suggests. Consider George W. Bush, our first president to hold an MBA, and Dick Cheney, who was CEO of Halliburton. As The Washington Post reported upon Bush’s departure in January 2009: “President Bush has presided over the weakest eight-year span for the U.S. economy in decades, according to an analysis of key data, and economists across the ideological spectrum increasingly view his two terms as a time of little progress on the nation’s thorniest fiscal challenges.”

Bush’s eight years in office saw 2 percent job growth — the worst in the seven decades the data has been kept — and that was before much of the job loss due to the housing bubble bursting. Americans’ incomes grew less than during any presidency since the 1960s except for Bush’s father, who also worked in the oil business.

Nor were Bush and Cheney especially competent managers. From the Iraq occupation to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, even Republicans have generally acknowledged that their administration was characterized by poor planning, slow responses and bad personnel decisions. And as for fiscal responsibility: Bush inherited a surplus in 2001 and by 2004 was running an annual deficit in excess of 4 percent of GDP. Experts estimate his policies’ contribution to the current deficit to be almost a trillion dollars annually.

There is at least one example of an entrepreneur turning into a successful government executive: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Under Bloomberg, New York generally has thrived, with a relatively healthy economy and housing market, low crime and some progress toward a cleaner environment and better schools. Still, Bloomberg’s biggest flaws as mayor have been attributable to his autocratic, anti-democratic tendencies, which probably have something to do with his background as the boss of a private company rather than a public servant.

For instance, Bloomberg’s congestion pricing scheme for Manhattan was blocked by the state legislature after Bloomberg mishandled his effort to gain their permission, as was his plan to build a stadium on the West Side of Manhattan as part of the unsuccessful 2012 Olympic bid. His education reform agenda was damaged by his absurd, disastrous choice of Cathie Black as schools chancellor. And who was Cathie Black? The CEO of Hearst, who had no experience as an educator and had neither attended nor sent her children to public school. But, as The New York Times reported she “moved in the same Upper East Side circles as the billionaire mayor.”

Bloomberg passed over his qualified African-American Deputy Mayor for Education, Dennis Walcott, to appoint Black, on the grounds that private sector work is more valuable than personal or professional experience in education. Black went on to make numerous embarrassing gaffes, such as joking that the solution to over-crowding in public schools was more use of birth control and deciding which programs to cut is like deciding which child would die in the Holocaust. Four deputy chancellors quit, and she was gone in three months. Coming on the heels of Bloomberg’s ineffective response to the blizzard last winter, Bloomberg is now widely viewed as a diminished mayor.

Black’s experience demonstrates that making a profit in the private sector and serving diverse constituencies in a democratic republic are very different skills. While some people may possess both, the two should never be conflated.

But politicians aren’t known for letting facts get in the way of a good story. And so Romney continues to run on his record of job creation despite having laid off thousands of workers and presided over anemic job growth in Massachusetts when he was governor. And that’s how you know he’s a politician, not an angel sent from the private sector to save us.

4 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Because it’s been proven over and over that politicians are clueless.
At least businessmen have accomplished something meaningful.

Posted by ActualTaxpayer | Report as abusive

Why do we keep thinking parochial minded and blatantly biased internet bloggers qualify as credible political opinion writers?

These questions may never be answered.

Posted by free_enterprise | Report as abusive

Unfortunately, businessmen are trained to ALWAYS sacrifice the people at the bottom for the sake of profit for those at the top, a regressive approach at best.

Posted by NewYorkDowntown | Report as abusive

We’ve never actually tried a successful businessman in the white house. Look where the professional politicians got us. Is anybody happy? Not that Romney is the answer. He doesn’t know who he is or what he believes. He sways with the polls like a tree in the wind.

Posted by BeveM | Report as abusive