Why does Mitt Romney want to be president?

November 4, 2012

In 2007, when Mitt Romney sat down with the Wall Street Journal editorial board, the candidate for the Republican presidential nomination was eager for the influential paper’s blessing. What he got, instead, was their bemusement.


Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Charles Dharapak - AP

The paper’s account of the interview begins with a three-word quote from Romney: “I love data.” The Journal editors go on to slyly note, “Mitt Romney has been speaking for less than two minutes when he makes this profession.” They then quote him again. “I used to call it ’wallowing in the data.’ Let me see the data. I want to see the client’s data, the competitors’ data. I want to see all the data.”

The Journal’s conservative editorial board didn’t want to see the data. They wanted to see the ideology. They wanted to know whether Romney was one of them. But he seemed uncomfortable with that line of questioning. “When asked whether his ‘nuts- and-bolts’ approach can possibly succeed in an ideological, divided age, he returns to the nuts and bolts.” Pressed by the board, Romney begins to stammer. “Obviously, I have -- just like in the consulting world -- I have ’concepts’ that I believe.” You can almost see the flop sweat.

But as past Romney staffers have found, ideological commitment isn’t Romney’s thing. In “The Real Romney,” Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, two Boston Globe reporters who covered Romney’s tenure as governor of Massachusetts, recount how he prepared to run for the U.S. Senate in 1994. “Michael Sununu, the campaign’s research and policy guru, would sit down with Romney and talk through key issues like welfare reform. Romney, true to his Bain training, wanted to drill down into the details: Who supports this? Are there other alternatives? What does the national Republican leadership say about it? Less natural to him was the question ‘What do I think?”’

This has made Romney’s politics something of a puzzle. Washington has its empiricists and its data-hounds, but most who enter public service do so because they want to apply that data to a grand purpose. They like their data, but they’re in politics because they care about ideology, or a party, or at least a particular issue. “Concept” doesn’t begin to describe it.

Romney’s apparent disinterest in an animating ideology has made him hard to pin down -- for the Journal editorial board, for journalists, for Democrats and Republicans, for campaign consultants, even for Romney’s closest confidantes. It has led to the common knock on Romney that he lacks a core. He’s an opportunist. He picks whatever position is expedient. He is a guy with brains, but no guts.

But after spending the last year talking to Romney advisers and former colleagues, as well as listening to him on the campaign trail, I’ve come to see this description as insufficient. It’s not so much that Romney lacks a core as that his core can’t readily be mapped by traditional political instruments. As a result, he is free to be opportunistic about the kinds of commitments that people with strong political cores tend to value most.

What Romney values most is something most of us don’t think much about: management. A lifetime of data has proven to him that he’s extraordinarily, even uniquely, good at managing and leading organizations, projects and people. It’s those skills, rather than specific policy ideas, that he sees as his unique contribution. That has been the case everywhere else he has worked, and he assumes it will be the case in the White House, too. When we look at Romney’s career and see a coreless opportunist, we’re just looking at the wrong data.

The normal data set to use in evaluating a candidate like Romney is the one furnished by his political past: His campaigns for Senate and governor of Massachusetts, his gubernatorial record and his 2008 campaign for president. But if you limit yourself to that, you almost inevitably conclude that he has no fixed views and tells voters whatever he thinks will make them vote for him.

Romney ran for Senate in 1994 as a moderate Republican who, far from being a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution, stressed that he had been an “independent.” He refused to sign Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America; said he could do more to advance gay rights than his Democratic opponent Ted Kennedy; promised to be unwavering in support of Roe v. Wade; and told reporters he would support a national health-care plan with an individual mandate.

Romney lost that campaign. But eight years later, he ran for governor of Massachusetts and won. He called himself a “progressive Republican,” supported Roe v. Wade, gay rights and gun control, and signed the nation’s first health-care law with an individual mandate -- the widely acknowledged inspiration for President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Toward the end of Romney’s first term as governor, he began testing the waters for a presidential run. Romney’s team gathered the data on the campaign, the voters and the competition. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) led in the primary polls, but both were viewed with suspicion by social conservatives. That left a path to the nomination if Romney could credibly court social conservatives.

Romney burst into national politics as a fierce opponent of Roe v. Wade and gay marriage. His debut was pretty much a disaster. If Romney’s strategy was going to work, it would have to succeed in South Carolina, which has the most socially conservative electorate of the early primary calendar. But his South Carolina team quickly realized that the focus on social conservatism was killing the campaign.

“Every time Governor Romney talks about social issues, the flip-flopper accusations have been and will continue to be mentioned,” wrote South Carolina operatives in an extraordinary memo to Beth Myers, Romney’s campaign manager. The memo, quoted by Kranish and Helman in their book, went on to beg the campaign to refocus on economic issues. Romney, they said, had to “be acceptable to the pro-life crowd” to win, but he didn’t need to be its “champion.”

In 2012, Romney followed his South Carolina team’s advice, reiterating his commitment to cultural conservatism but otherwise shunning it. Asked last month by the Des Moines Register what legislation he might support regarding abortion, he said, “There’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.” Instead, he has focused his campaign on promises to fix the economy, repeal the Affordable Care Act and work with, rather than against, U.S. business.

“Everything could always be tweaked, reshaped, fixed, addressed,” one former aide complained to Kranish and Helman. “It was foreign to him on policy issues that core principles mattered -- that somebody would go back and say, ‘Well, three years ago you said this.”’

“The executives of the postwar era were corporate lifers,” writes Chrystia Freeland in “Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Elite and the Fall of Everyone Else.” “They were the creations and servants of their companies, and a great deal of value came from their knowledge of the particular corporate cultures that had created them and the specific business they did.” Freeland contrasted that old guard with the new. “The superstar CEO cannot be tied to a single corporation and, ideally, not even to a single industry,” she wrote. “He must be an exemplary talent whose skill is in ‘management’ or in ‘leadership.”’

The glorification and subsequent commodification of “management” and “leadership” skills isn’t confined to the world of superstar CEOs. You can see it in the business section of any Barnes & Noble. Rows upon rows of books promise to help you “get to yes” or turn into a “one-minute manager” or develop “strengths-based leadership.” None of these books particularly cares what it is you’re managing, or where it is you’re leading, or why exactly you’re trying to get to yes. These are skills like running or weightlifting. You can excel at them no matter where you’re going or what you carry.

If business publishing is where this trend became word, management consulting is where it was made flesh. The new gospel insisted that failing businesses didn’t need industry insiders to prosper. They needed whiz-kid outsiders steeped in the latest management theories and versed in the most sophisticated analytical techniques. Bain Consulting, where Romney got his start, was a pioneer in the field.

But even successful management consultants were dogged by a suspicion that what they were really offering their CEO clients was a convenient fall guy. How much easier for CEOs to blame painful firings and restructurings on the cold analysis of the dispassionate consultants.

Enter private equity. Management consultants were making money by giving advice to companies. In private equity, they’d actually be running the companies. Office supply retailer? Doughnut chain? Hospital network? It didn’t matter. The idea that these brilliant, data-driven business strategists can buy a company in almost any industry and wrest more value out of it than the old, stodgy, stuck-in-the-mud managers they displaced would be put to the test. If they made money, it would prove them right. If they lost money, it would prove them wrong.

They made money. Romney was extraordinarily good at private equity, as his net worth confirms. He proved his skills at “management” and “leadership” worked in industry after industry, company after company. And his success didn’t end there.

He was elevated to the position of bishop by the Mormon church. He turned the Salt Lake City Olympics around. He was a generally successful governor of Massachusetts who signed into law the country’s first universal health-care bill with broad bipartisan support. More recently, of course, he used his leadership and management skills to win the Republican nomination for president. Experience has shown Romney that his skills are applicable across a wide range of endeavors and a vast assortment of constituencies. Success in the number of fields that superstar CEOs enter, Freeland says, tends to encourage “a sense of mastery, and that sense of mastery gives them a belief they can do anything.” And Romney has been more successful in more fields than almost any CEO in history.

This is why Romney thinks he should be president. A lifetime of data has proved to him that his management skills constitute a unique and powerful contribution. In Romney’s world, there’s nothing strange about that, which may also explain his willingness to be unusually strategic, even cynical, about the policies he supports.

“In business you don’t get to say I tried but I just couldn’t get it done,” said Ed Conard, author of "Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You've Been Told About the Economy is Wrong" and a former managing director at Bain who worked closely with Romney. “Trying doesn’t count. You have to get something done. All that matters is getting the best possible thing done. You’d always hear Mitt say, ‘What is the cost of compromise? What would it cost us to give them that?”’

Romney’s record as a successful manager and pragmatic governor terrified the Obama campaign. Early on, Obama strategists decided not to tar Romney as a flip-flopper for fear voters would interpret the charge as “closet moderate” -- and like Romney all the better for it. Instead, they noted the extreme positions Romney adopted to win the Republican primary and campaigned against this “severe” conservatism. In his debates with Obama this fall, Romney countered by selling himself as a committed moderate.

The truth is that Romney isn’t a hard-core conservative -- but he’s willing to act as one. Nor is he a genuine moderate -- unless that’s what the situation calls for.

Romney is a manager. The question is: What will he be managing? The answer, in most cases, is Congress. Presidential campaigns fool us into believing the central question of U.S. politics is, “What does the president want?” But the political system is constructed around the central question of, “What will Congress pass?”

Some argue that the president holds the ultimate power to “agenda set,” even if much of that power is derived from Congress’s willingness to let him set its agenda. There’s truth to that, but it obscures the very substantive negotiations between the White House and Congress. When Obama chose to push health-care reform in 2009, for instance, he did so in large part because key members of Congress also wanted to push it. If they had wanted to push cap-and-trade legislation instead, that’s probably the agenda the president would have set. Presidents trying to govern set an agenda Congress is willing to pass.

The answer, then, to the question “What does Mitt Romney think?” is this: It matters even less what Romney thinks than it matters for most presidents. Romney’s policy preferences are unusually weak, his deal-making instincts are unusually strong and his party will be unusually aggressive in policing his agenda. George W. Bush used his personal prestige to convince Republicans to vote for Medicare Part D, a debt-financed expansion of the welfare state that conservatives would typically have found noxious. Obama convinced his party to support the individual mandate, a Republican idea that he had vigorously opposed in the Democratic primary.

Romney does not have significant prestige within the Republican Party, which largely views him with mistrust. Perhaps more significant, his party has spent the past few years developing its governing agenda without him. “We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, at the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference. “We just need a president to sign this stuff.”

In choosing Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the lead architect of the Republican House’s legislative agenda, as his running mate, Romney signaled his broad acceptance of Norquist’s argument. Whether a Romney administration would corral the votes to pass Ryan’s agenda remains an open question. Democrats seem much more likely to hold the Senate than they did six months ago.

At this point, neither voters nor Romney have sufficient data to know how he would govern. With a Republican Congress, he would govern from the right. With a Democratic Congress, he would move to the center. If he faces a divided Congress, he will look for compromise to get “the best possible thing done.” Without knowing the composition of Congress, we can’t know the kind of president Romney would be. We know he can manage, but we don’t know which company he will be managing.

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