Michael Kazin has a good piece over at Dissent (and cross-posted at The New Republic) about the assumption made by Mitt Romney and others that successful businessmen are uniquely suited to be successful presidents. As Kazin notes, this belief amusingly flies in the face of history (my emphasis in bold):
[…] The fact is that no successful businessman has ever been a successful president, and only a few have even been serious contenders for the job.
This might seem odd, given Americans’ long romance with wealthy entrepreneurs and the enterprises they build. But a talent for developing private companies and making big profits seldom translates into wooing a majority of voters or governing a contentious republic. It may, in fact, blind one from recognizing critical differences between those equally difficult endeavors.
He then goes on to explain the best example of this reality – Herbert Hoover as a private-sector titan unable to cope with a public-sector job where ‘rugged individualism’ is more of a hinderance than help. His prized business acumen was a poor match for a position that requires both positive and negative aspects of political maneuvering to be effective. Which is to say that Hoover discovered that being President of the United States is not the same as being a partner at Bewick, Moreing & Company or an investor in Burma Company.
Which brings us to Mitt Romney. I would not argue, and neither does Kazin, that Romney is akin to Hoover is such a specific way. Hoover had no previous elected experience prior to winning the presidency, while Romney was a one-term governor of Massachusetts. Having also navigated two Republican presidential primaries, he is obviously more versed in politicking as well. However, the generic commonality they share is the claim that business success equals presidential success. For Romney it’s a particular focus on the economy, and how his experience as Chief Executive Officer at Bain Capital (among other private-sector endeavors) makes him uniquely suited to ‘fixing’ our economic woes as president.
That particular concept is something I’ve addressed previously, specifically in reference to macroeconomic policy:
He was a successful businessman, profitable in the private sector and savior of the Winter Olympics! We’re then supposed to take a certain type of cognitive step in applying these facts – infering an inheretent talent for the academic-based category of macroeconomic policy. I’m sorry, I’m just not sure I see the connection.
There is no connection between these things (whether it’s policy or political effectiveness) because the presidency doesn’t make you CEO of America or the national economy. As Kazin notes, the counter-notion that it does produced the doomed campaigns of Wendell Wilkie, Ross Perot, and more recently Herman Cain. Yet their inability to convince the American public (or in the case of Cain, even the Republican voting bloc) the potential effectiveness of their business background is a testament to the fallibility of this belief. At the end of the day successful presidents are by default successful politicians, first and foremost, and not only in the sense that they need to be elected. Being a successful politician is imminently more crucial in fostering effective public policy, far and above what it takes to be successful in the private-sector.
Again this isn’t to say that Mitt Romney doesn’t have those skills, but that his primary justification for deserving the executive office is founded on a fundamentally erroneous assumption. As Kazin writes about the aftermath of Hoover’s term (my emphasis):
And so, over the next six decades, the idea of a businessman as president largely went out of fashion. Part of this has to do with the fact that Americans wanted professional politicians to administer the new government programs—domestic and military—on which a majority of the public had come to depend.
Perhaps that was a more enlightened age, given the penchant of modern thinking that candidates with little to no political experience are preferable civic stewards. I can think of no other position, especially one as influential as elected office, where prevailing opinion has a person with no experience – and indeed where a visceral disgust of the job is a bonus – as the ideal applicant. What we really want are people who can do the job without ever having to do the type of necessary work we often detest. It’s odd, to be sure, but we’re a complicated lot. Understanding and accepting that dichotomy is a quality far more preferable in a political candidate, and is a lesson rarely found in the private sector.