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.