Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Presidential Technocrats

You’ve got to feel a little for conservative Republicans. Every day it looks more likely that Mitt Romney will be their presidential nominee.  So you can hardly blame them for trying to spare themselves a little cognitive dissonance by doing their level best to persuade themselves that, deep inside, he’s an authentic conservative. Yet their efforts in this regard are undermined by the fact that, when it comes to passing ideological litmus tests, Romney's reliably unreliable. His failure to take sides in the ballot initiative election in Ohio over public sector union collective bargaining rights, and the pained reaction of conservatives like Erick Erickson, is just the latest case in point. Any way you slice it, Romney’s a poor excuse for a conviction politician.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells has a terrific piece in the latest edition of New York Magazine taking Romney at his word when he insists that he’s a creature of the private sector whose political character was forged in the course of his fabulously successful career in management consulting and private equity. Here’s Wallace-Wells’s description about how Romney went about his business at the private equity firm he helped found:

“Their new firm reflected some aspects of Romney’s own personality: his mania for detail and for process. . . . Romney never worked from any particular macro theme, any philosophy of how the economy was moving. What he employed instead was an exhausting habit of playing devil’s advocate, proposing sequential objections to a particular project or idea, until eventually, through a kind of Darwinian process, consensus was reached. I never viewed Mitt as very decisive, says one of his Bain Capital colleagues. The idea was that if there’s enough argument around an issue by bright people, ultimately the data will prevail. . . .”
If you ask me, that’s a plausible description of a mind devoted to maximizing shareholder value by adapting optimizing techniques current in business school curricula to whatever business opportunity happened to present itself. Romney’s a creature of a particular part of the private sector that operates at the intersection of business and finance. His not being a "conviction politician" was foretold by his not being a “conviction businessman” either, if by that you mean someone like Steve Jobs who devoted his efforts to developing and marketing a particular type of product subject to distinctive design and operating standards.  To be sure, Jobs made a ton of money in the process, but it's impossible to imagine him fulfilling his commercial ambitions if he'd made a comparable amount selling soap. The secret of Romney’s business success was not caring about what he was selling as long as selling it promised a substantial enough return on investment. 

As Governor of Massachusetts, Romney practiced politics in substantially the same way. According to Wallace-Wells, he didn't come to office with a burning ambition to address any issue in particular.  He happened to get interested in health care reform because the fact that uninsured patients were inefficiently clogging up hospital emergency rooms presented him with a problem he could solve that promised a healthy return on his political capital. In politics as in business, Romney has always been a technocratic hammer in search of a raised nail.  It doesn't much matter to him which nail it is as long as it pays to flatten it.

That tells Wallace-Wells something about what a Romney administration would look like:
“It is arresting to imagine a Romney White House, inevitably filled with as many former Bain colleagues as each of his other public ventures have been: The PowerPoints, the 80-20 jargon, the clinical separation of decision-making from ideology, the detachment of those decisions from moral consequence . . .”
Does that plausible scenario sound as familiar to you as it does to me? If you squint a little, allowing for the inversion of right and left, I submit that you can see the mirror image of the Obama presidency.  Compare Wallace-Wells’s picture of a Romney White House to the picture George Packer painted of Obama’s White House a year into his presidency:
"[Obama's] preferred approach, as we’ve learned this past year, is to bring together his relatively non-ideological advisers, let each one argue a point of view, then make a decision on the rational basis of evidence and expertise, and explain it to the public in a detailed, almost anti-inspirational manner. Thus the bank plan, the Afghanistan policy, the 'jobs summit,' etc. . . .  If Obama has any ideology, it’s this process . . . .”
If you apply Wallace-Wells’s biographical method to both Obama and Romney, their intellectual kinship makes some sense. Romney’s political character was forged by his early decision to enter the business world. Yet rather than get into any business in particular he became a management consultant because it would present him with the opportunity to apply the abstract techniques he’d learned as a student of business administration. His skill set, and his readiness to apply it to whatever opportunity presented itself, didn't change much when his private equity firm took a piece of the action in the firm to which he was applying his management expertise, or when he was investing his political capital in search of high office.

The parallels in Obama's biography are impressive.  He headed for the world of political activism right out of college.  Yet he did so as a “community organizer” without committing himself to, or permitting himself to be identified with, any particular political cause. Subsequently, he decided that he’d secure a handsome return as a political activist by becoming a highly accredited legal intellectual without demonstrated expertise in any particular area of the law.  When you think about it, community organizers and generalist legal intellectuals are the management consultants of political activism.  They too are technocratic hammers in search of raised political nails. 


CJ said...

You make a very interesting comparison and observation.

I would say there is at least one big difference between Obama's and Romney's style of trying to solve a problem. Romney has demonstrated success, in private industry and government service, while Obama has no idea how to do it and makes it up as he goes along.

You've identified an interesting parallel, nonetheless.

Billy said...

I don't know CJ. Romney made a lot of money being a management consultant in the business world. Obama got himself elected president by being a political management consultant. I'd say the proof that Obama's consulting gigs top Romney's is the fact that Romney wants to change places with him.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone notice that a young Mitt Romney looks a lot like Don Draper? (See the pix in the New York Mag piece). Amazing.