Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Romney: A Businessman for President?

What is it about businessmen that Americans admire so? The Republican word-mavin Frank Luntz shop tested the word in focus groups, and Americans are ga-ga for businessmen, especially small business owners.

When we think of people who are tooting their horn for being businessmen, you must not overlook the fact that these are people who are successful businessmen. Now we all know that the difference between being brave and being stupid is frequently nothing more than the outcome. All of these successful business men took risks, and most of them were warned that they were being foolhardy. They soldiered on, things turned out okay, and now they are admired as risk takers.

Another thing that we admire about successful businessmen is their clear-eyed pragmatism. They leave it for others to dither about the emotional cost of down-sizing, out-sourcing, and pink slips. They believe in a competitive system where to the victor go the spoils, and only the strong survive. And the more it resembles “nature, red in tooth and claw,” the better.

Beyond that, they adjust quickly to new realities, learn from their mistakes, and take a long view. They are leaders, who function well in a top down command environment. And they are highly motivated to succeed as individuals.

Many businessmen are charitable in their private lives, and care deeply for their families, and for their dogs. But these are not necessarily the qualities of businessmen. The selfish businessman whose motivation to succeed is best described as greed or avarice is no less admired qua businessman.

Now let’s take a look at a businessman who is running for President. First of all, no one can doubt that he was a very successful business man. But was he really a risk taker? The Boston Globe in 2007 reported that Romney agreed to run Bain Capital only after negotiating terms so there wouldn’t be any financial or professional risk:
“Bain sweetened the offer. He guaranteed that if the experiment failed, Romney would get his old job and salary back, plus any raises handed out during his absence. Romney had one more concern: the impact on his reputation should he prove unable to do the job. In the end, Bain agreed to craft a cover story if necessary, promising to bring Romney back to the consulting firm and explain Romney's return as a matter of his being more valuable to Bain as a consultant. ‘So,’ Bain says, ‘there was no professional or financial risk.’”
 Romney is a clear-eyed pragmatist when it came to his business dealing. Indeed, that was the point of the Boston Globe story about Romney putting Seamus the Irish setter on the car roof. The author related that after the dog got sick, with poop running down the rear window of the Rambler station wagon, Romney got a hose, cleaned up the mess and carried on. No wallowing in the emotional swamp of sympathy for Mitt Romney!

Let’s face it: If you don’t count Obama, the last successful president was Bill Clinton. (Republicans apparently agree. They are not begging W to show up on the campaign trail.) Clinton successfully prosecuted the war in Kosovo without sustaining any American casualties, kept inflation low and employment high, balanced the budget, and then produced surpluses. But that is not why he was so popular. What made him beloved – and why he still is beloved – is that when he said, “I feel your pain,” you felt that, by golly, he does.

When you hear Romney on the hustings, you just don’t get that feeling. Instead, you sense the same heartless calculation that works so well in the business world. In part, that’s what appeals to laissez- faire capitalists about the state-of-nature world of business. It’s not personal: it’s business. And that makes it so much less complicated.

Of course, regulations, introduce a level of complexity. They make businesses responsible for what they prefer to think of as externalities.  An externality is an effect of a business decision by one party on others who did not have a choice and whose interests were not taken into account. A classic example is pollution. When regulations are imposed, businessmen have to be responsible for the costs that pollution imposes on their fellow citizens. Now, the businessman must continue to make the product in sufficient quantities to meet demand and also, consider his neighbors rights to fresh air and clean water. Businessmen in general, and Romney in particular, hate regulations because they don’t feel anyone else’s pain.

Our world is very complex and changing at a rapid and accelerating rate. We need a President whose mind is agile, who learns from mistakes and adjusts. Now, you can say that Romney is able to change his mind as quick as anyone. Indeed, his own campaign manager stated publicly that he could change his views as quickly as an etch-a-sketch. But that is different from the decisiveness needed to govern. In Romney’s case it isn’t that he changes his mind. Rather, he lacks any commitment. He can be for individual mandates as governor, but against them as Republican presumptive nominee, because he is not committed one way or the other. Even one of his biggest financial backers, Sheldon Adelson, said that he met with Romney and came away unimpressed with the candidates ability to take a position. That, said Adelson, was why he was supporting Gingrich. That was then; this is now.

But what about the ability to learn from mistakes? You might say all successful businessmen must do this. But not Romney. He wants to implement the exact same economic policies that drove this country to the brink of a second Great Depression under George W. Bush. Quick! Think of something that Romney favors that didn’t fail when it was tried under W! I didn’t think you could, but don’t feel bad. I can’t either.

Romney has claimed to have learned from past mistakes. For example, he says that if he were to tell people what exactly he plans to do if elected, they wouldn’t vote for him. He knows this because he had that sad experience when he ran against Teddy Kennedy. But that claim, in the final analysis, amounts to a plea of “Trust me. I’m a business man.”  And the problem with that is that businessmen don’t operate on trust. They live in a world where if it isn’t in writing, it doesn’t mean anything.

Businessmen see circumstances as opportunities to exploit. When Bain Capital took companies through bankruptcy and slithered out from under the pension obligations, the U.S. government picked up the tab. Give Romney credit for seizing the opportunity. But one must wonder how that talent will serve the country if – G-d forbid – Romney were elected to President.

Will Romney’s ability to take charge, bark orders and snap his fingers work in the political world? Of course, this is the world which the Founding Fathers took care to construct so as avoid the concentration of power in one branch of government.

As Richard Neustatd said in his famous book, Presidential Power (1960): “Presidential power is the power to persuade.”  In other words, the president's primary power is to persuade and bargain, not to command. When a president has to resort to commanding people, he is showing weakness. Commands only work in very special circumstances. “The essence of a President's persuasive task is to convince such men that what the White House wants of them is what they ought to do for their sake and on their authority” This is an entirely different skill set than that which is required of a businessman. When it comes to being persuasive, the primaries showed that Romney couldn’t garner any followers, but he could spend enough to slime any opponent so that he was the last man standing. Even John Boehner says that people won’t vote for Romney because the love him, but rather because they dislike the President.

As I have said, “Many businessmen are charitable in their private lives, and care deeply for their families and for their dogs”  From what we have seen on the one tax return that Romney has been willing to disclose, he appears to be very charitable in his private life. On the other hand, George Romney, Mitt’s father, said, when he was running for President that he needed to release 12 tax returns, because“one year could be a fluke.”

And there can be no doubt that he cares deeply for his family. To take just one example: on the very eve of him becoming Governor of Massachusetts, he was so concerned about his wife, Ann, that he took care to transfer ownership of Sankaty Advisors, one of his Bermuda-incorporated companies to her. Now that’s love! And as for loving his dog, it’s not for me to judge.  

Go ask Seamus.

“… and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

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