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Post Leadership
Posted at 11:12 AM ET, 04/12/2011

Romney’s run: Why businesss experience isn’t always the holy grail for conservative candidates

Mitt Romney has made it official. In a video that Post columnist Jonathan Capehart has called as much of a snoozer as the Bette Midler movie “Beaches,” Romney announced that he is officially forming an exploratory committee to run for president. Which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone: Romney has been exploring becoming president ever since he lost the 2008 primary, and is widely considered the GOP’s next-in-line frontrunner.

Romney is so well known as a potential presidential candidate that many people have already formed an opinion of him. He’s often thought to be a little stiff, looking very much the coiffed, Brooks Brothers-clad businessman but rarely the approachable everyman. He’s a Mormon, a fact that shouldn’t matter but is unlikely to play well among conservative evangelical voters in Iowa.

And then there’s that little thing called Romneycare—the former Massachusetts governor signed a law five years ago today that has led to 98 percent of Bay State citizens having health care and is similar to President Obama’s controversial legislation. That law, Romney’s Achilles heel, is sure to trip him up as long as he takes the middle ground in defending it (he’s now calling it an experiment) or avoiding it (health care never comes up in his announcement video). A stronger response—either a complete apology for his past policies or a vigorous defense, as some have suggested—is needed.

But while most have focused on his religion and his health-care policies, Romney’s background as a private equity CEO could become an issue for him too. Romney made only a vague reference to Bain Capital, the private equity powerhouse he helped to found, in his announcement video: “In 1985 I helped found a company. At first we had 10 employees, today there are hundreds.” He offers up what may be one of the most benign explanations of what private equity firms do: “My work led me to become deeply involved in helping other businesses, from innovative startups to large companies going through tough times.” And while he admits that sometimes he didn’t help create jobs (“sometimes I was successful …other times I wasn’t”), he does not say that Bain Capital—just like any other private equity firm—often must cut many jobs in its quest to return profit to investors.

Romney, in other words, was no innovator-in-the-garage, creating products or services that will build the next HP or the next Google. Nor was he running a corner store. Rather, he helped found a firm that specializes in dealmaking and investing in startup ventures, to be sure, but most of all, in buying and turning around companies to make a profit for investors. To do so, it typically strips out costs, which can mean cutting jobs. Romney has defended private equity’s cost-cutting practices in the past, telling The New York Times that “Sometimes the medicine is a little bitter but it is necessary to save the life of the patient. My job was to try and make the enterprise successful, and in my view the best security a family can have is that the business they work for is strong.”

CEO-level business experience and entrepreneurial chops are typically seen as a golden ticket for Republican candidates. And for many voters, Romney’s will be too. But his background is also a reminder that private sector experience is not necessarily an untouchable holy grail for conservative candidates, and that past business experience can be a complex thing. Leadership, as any business guru will tell you, is not the same thing as management.

More from On Leadership:

Warren Buffett’s successor: Stepping in for Superman

Cathie Black’s exit: Why business leadership isn’t necessarily portable

With GE’s Immelt, Obama should have put more imagination to work

The president’s definition of leadership

By  |  11:12 AM ET, 04/12/2011

 
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