The Consultant President
The Consultant President
By Tony Lucadamo
If you have not already, I encourage you to watch a recent PBS Frontline special on the Presidents entitled, “The Choice 2012.” The show’s season premiere takes an in-depth look at the backgrounds of both Presidential nominees.
Mitt Romney’s time as Governor of Massachusetts gets thorough coverage as part of the episode. To that end, some interesting quotes come out of the associated interviews.
David Brooks of the New York Times states:
“I really think that he is a product of a world where you do market research. You find out what’s working and not working. You do controlled experiments. And then you dovetail the product to suit the marketplace. He’s looked at the market and he’s seen what niche there is.”
Benjamin Wallace-Wells of New York Magazine adds:
“Mitt Romney was unable to consider the question [of abortion] in the abstract. He dealt with it as a managerial problem or case study.”
But the most interesting point was this. Nicholas Lemann of the New Yorker remarked:
“It’s a little bit like a consulting engagement. You go in. You figure out what the problems are. You fix things. You make things more organized. Then you go on to the next challenge.”
Romney’s senior advisors essentially concur in later statements. Their narrative runs like a private equity assignment. He presented a product – the socially liberal, fiscally conservative Governor — which he thought would meet demand. He then did what he could given a Democratic-controlled State legislature. In particular, he picked the issue of healthcare and made it the main issue of his four years in office.
Yet, in many ways, this alternate method is nothing new. Certainly, populism has been around for a long time.
Indeed, its legacy goes all the way back to our country’s founding. Before his fall from grace, Aaron Burr rose to the Vice Presidency in similar fashion. History remembers him primarily as a dueler and possible traitor. Yet, to many contemporaries, he was a deft strategist. He projected the necessary image to each interested parties in the divisive, pluralistic New York political scene of the time.
President Clinton presents the best example of the modern version. Following a poor showing in his first set of midterm elections, he made a distinct move to the center in response to public opinion.
However, Governor Romney’s profile is slightly different. Perhaps it is an evolution of the executive-centered, efficiency-minded values that took root in the Progressive Era combined with a populism gleaned through the lens of modern business.
The service sector constitutes an increasing proportion of U.S. GDP with each passing year. In that case, it should come as no surprise that this new generation of leaders is upon us.
Men and women who have built their careers in private equity and consulting may increasingly seek to transfer their skills into politics.
There is equal fodder for both pessimists and optimists in that case.
On the plus side, there is something reassuring in such technocratic leadership. In the case of Massachusetts, the healthcare system was a product of Romney’s distinct style. He brought in experts from MIT to crunch the numbers. Before towing the party line, he took a hard look at arithmetic. He then systematically went about getting the legislature on board with a system designed to be bipartisan enough to pass.
Americans may find that last point particularly reassuring. The capacity to compromise has been in short supply in an era of distinct polarization.
The failed attempt at a “grand bargain” over the country’s budget comes to mind as an immediate example of failures in bipartisanship. Many Americans then, may warm to the idea of a leader capable of bridging the divide. In an era when so much change appears forthcoming, perhaps a true mediator is exactly what the country needs.
That said, we do not want to completely overstate the facts. Transcribing past success at the state level to the national stage is fraught with uncertainty. There is no guarantee that what worked as Governor will apply as President. As President, Romney will have to contend with a hyperpartisan and polarized Congress.
While Romney had to reach across the aisle in Massachusetts, the political environment was different. The relative gap between the two sides has grown more pronounced in recent years, especially at the national level. Thus, what worked then may not easily convert to the executive branch in 2013.
Taking a further step back, some voters may find the shifting nature of respective stances to be a vice. In some ways, the idea of constantly changing views to suit the next electorate is disconcerting. Afterall, the Founders believed that the political system should provide for some continuity and stability.
There is a fine line between being amenable to democratic realities and having a lack of principles. The more a leader reverses position, the more the latter has the appearance of being true.
Thus, Governor Romney’s attributes are a bit ambiguous. Perhaps his suitability for office is in the eye of the beholder.
However, that tendency towards the perception of untrustworthiness bears remembrance. It could be the razor’s edge on which future would-be consultant populists rise and fall in higher office.