Romney sales pitch reminds me of Bush’s

Hal Stevenson, former supporter of Sam Brownback, is continuing his quest — which I wrote about in Sunday’s paper — for a new candidate to back. He and I continued our conversation about it after Rotary Monday. We talked for about half an hour, until I had to run to another meeting. We weren’t done by any means, and we made a loose commitment to continue over coffee or breakfast or something soon.

Hal had been speaking to someone else who urged him to go with Romney, as a CEO type to cure what ails the executive branch after eight years of Bush administration incompetence. I responded in two ways. First, I promised to send him a link to this WSJ piece — it was the Saturday interview feature on the op-ed page — discussing the idea of Romney as "Consultant in Chief," an image he seems to choose to project himself. The piece didn’t make the prospect sound very appealing to me, but maybe Hal will read it differently.

But I shared with him a second thought — one which may help account for my jaded response to the WSJ piece (that is, in addition to the fact that I have yet to be impressed by the performance in office of anyone who went in promising "to make government run like a business").

Back in 2000, we went through an agonizing process (agonizing for me, anyway) over whom to endorse in the GOP primary. I argued strenuously for John McCain, but my then-publisher was adamantly in favor of Gov. Bush. In the end, the publisher won over half the people in the room — and a half that includes the publisher has more weight than a half with the editorial page editor. To bring the rest of us into consensus, we ran an endorsement that said good things about McCain, too. You could almost have read it as a 51 percent Bush, 49 percent McCain endorsement. This caused us to be criticized for a "wishy-washy" endorsement, but that was where we had ended up as a board. Even though I had lost on the main point, I would have held my breath until I turned blue before running a piece that ran down McCain. (Here’s what we ran. Read it, and feel my pain at losing the one editorial argument I probably most regret losing.)

Anyway, there was a thread that ran through our lengthy discussions, and in a way it reflected the difference in the working styles of the publisher and me. Our publisher was an above-the-fray CEO type, who hired competent people to do the actual work and come up with policies. His job was to decide between the various competing proposals suggested by the professionals under him.

I have always been very different. When I was in a newsroom, I tried to master every skill there was, from photography through production. I was (and am) an editor who also writes, and composes pages, and does photography and video, etc. Very hands-on. Maybe it’s an insecurity and therefore a character flaw, but I’ve always preferred to manage in situations where I felt like I could do the same work as those I managed (preferably better).

The publisher believed, and presented evidence to support the position, that Bush would have been a sort of above-the-fray executive — a guy who didn’t claim to be the expert himself, but would decide among the ideas advanced by the experts he hired to work under him. McCain was seen as more the guy who embodied the policies he espouse, who dug into the grubby work of policymaking up to his elbows. He was more like me.

Seriously. There was a lot of talk at the time supporting that view of G.W. Bush. Here’s an example of it, from The Christian Science Monitor:

Some critics argue that Bush is a captive of his advisers, dependent on their analysis in making up his mind on complex issues. Bush insiders tell it another way: He is a typical CEO who delegates details to a team of trusted advisers, while focusing his attention on the bigger picture. Clay Johnson, a friend at Phillips Academy at Andover, roommate at Yale, and now Bush’s chief of staff, says the press has been too quick to label the governor a dim bulb.

His subsequent performance as an "above-the-fray" executive has been so often disastrous, largely due to the quality of "experts" he hired to make policy, as to make this hard to imagine. But that view won the day.

And so it is that while I doubt that Romney is as incompetent as Bush — he’s got a more impressive resume — I still greet anybody who claims they can govern effectively as a CEO with many, many grains of salt. Painful experience has made me dubious.

8 thoughts on “Romney sales pitch reminds me of Bush’s

  1. Gary Karr

    I don’t find the CEO label overwhelmingly persuasive, either, but that doesn’t mean that someone who gets deep into the details is a good leader. Jimmy Carter supposedly was overhwelmed in the details, and few people suggest that his was a well-executed presidency.

  2. Mike

    This idea that McCain could get down into all the details is a little optomistic. The executive branch has become such a monster that there is no way any president could speak with authority on every issue that comes to him. I don’t think McCain has shown any authority where the economy is concerned (yes, you could argue that the president shouldn’t be initiating economic policy anyway, but that has become part of the job – like so many things that shouldn’t be). I think what attracts people to McCain or Giuliani is this idea that they could speak authoritatively on the big issue- homeland security. Unfortunately for McCain, that just isn’t enough. It is true that I don’t want to die in a terrorist attack, but I also have to know the economy will be secure, I will have some options for healthcare, and we can manage natural resources. McCain doesn’t have notable experience on those issues AND doesn’t have the management ability to get the right policies in place on them. Regardless of what the rhetoric may tell you, every would-be president has some on the job training coming; I would just rather have someone with the management skill to evaluate and integrate the best information than someone who can sound intelligent on one issue. McCain may well be the best manager ever, but nothing in his record tells me that. I admit to some bias: I don’t think a legislator should ever be president. The executive is a different job and requires a different kind of person.

  3. bill

    Your Sunday column and Hal Stevenson’s comments reminded me of something The Rev.Billy Graham said years ago-
    “Evangelicals can’t be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle, to preach to all the people, right and left. I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will in the future.”

  4. Brad Warthen

    Historically, the American people have agreed with you on that point, since they haven’t elected a senator president since 1960, and that one had a heap o’ charisma.
    But the point you raise brings me back to one of mine: I’ll agree that the skills involved in being a legislator are different from those involved in running the executive. But the difference between running a business and running the government (that is, the executive branch of it) is much greater.
    They are separate, complementary worlds. Government is the thing that does (and should only do) what the private sector can’t or won’t. Assembling the power to act, and translating plans into action, function VERY differently in the two worlds.
    McCain points, in his defense, that he has held executive authority — as a squadron commander at war. But I’m unconvinced by that argument, as wielding power in the military is just as different from doing so in the civilian government as is running a company in the private sector.
    The best preparation is probably being governor, and that differs greatly in a quantitative sense, but also, in important ways, qualitatively.
    As you say, on-the-job training is always part of the drill.

  5. Brad Warthen

    To be clear, my last comment was aimed at Mike. The next is aimed at bill.
    Billy Graham gained a lot of wisdom in his old age. It’s wisdom that I believe Hal, with his sincere seeking, it tuned into.
    I don’t think Pat Robertson will ever be that wise. I doubt that he wants to be.

  6. weldon VII

    Qualifications considered, Romney seems to me the best of all the candidates for president.
    But his sales pitch, the subject of your headline if not much of your post, is too vague.
    It’s raining, so let’s get our umbrellas, like good Republicans, he seems to be saying.
    Which is to say what?
    When his ads become more specific, if the specifics suit me, he might just get my vote.
    Otherwise, he’s just too generic, no matter how much fiscal good he did as a governor.

  7. Gene

    The “CEO Type” of President hasn’t worked all to well for us the past few years, has it? Why are we wanting to stick with something that doesn’t work then?
    Government isn’t a business, it’s Government, every time a candidate talks about running it like a business I have to take an aspirin…

  8. Paul Adair

    The rhetoric of running the government like a company is attractive, but it fails to translate in practice because the government is not and does not act like a business. The prime example is in the workforce. Every entity attracts personnel by a combination of salary and benefits and, frankly, the government pay scale is not competitive. You will not get the whizkid out of Stanford by paying McDonalds wages when he can make a mint at Google. And that goes for the paralegal as well, who can make six digits at a good law firm, but is lucky to make $30k in government. This is why teacher pay is important.
    It is also almost impossible to kill an existing government program. That is why McCain is right to kill them in congress. The GOP does not know what an ally in the fight against pork McCain is.
    Finally, I hope someone can answer this question. If Romney is indeed the CEO candidate with unparalleled business acumen, why hasn’t he proposed how to deal with the mortgage mess?

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