In every presidential campaign, there are crackpots who run vanity campaigns. We never learn their names, because the press doesn’t bother with them and they don’t appear in televised debates. In order to get the kind of attention that translates into a competitive bid, you need to have one of a small number of qualifications, like having held a high elected office (senator, governor), or been an important government official; a former secretary of state would qualify. But if a world-class mathematician or chef ran for president, people would find it strange. Just because you’ve been successful in a completely different arena doesn’t mean you ought to run the government. So why should we take this seriously?
On a Republican presidential debate stage expected to be filled with more than a dozen current and former politicians, Carly Fiorina envisions herself standing out — as the only woman and the only CEO.
Sensing an opportunity in a crowded field that lacks a front-runner, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive is actively exploring a 2016 presidential run. Fiorina has been talking privately with potential donors, recruiting campaign staffers, courting grass-roots activists in early caucus and primary states and planning trips to Iowa and New Hampshire starting next week.
If Fiorina decides to go ahead with a run, she will be treated like a serious candidate, interviewed on national news programs, and invited to primary debates. Why? Because of the myth that success in business, unlike success in any other area of life, somehow translates directly to competence in politics. This myth persists despite the complete lack of evidence that it is even remotely true.
Just from memory I could rattle off a dozen names of businessmen (they’re mostly, but not all, men) who ran for office saying, “I’m a businessman, not a politician” and ended up being terrible candidates. How many businesspeople can you think of who ran for office, won, and turned out to be good at their new job? Well, there’s Michael Bloomberg, and…that’s about it.
What’s really crazy is that “I’m a businessman, not a politician” is supposed to be a reason to vote for someone and not against them. If you applied for a job as an engineer or an attorney or an electrician and said, “Hire me, because my experience is in a completely different area and I know nothing about the business your company is in,” how well do you think it would go over?
It isn’t just because we believe that politics is inherently corrupt, and if you haven’t been sullied by it then you must be more virtuous than people who have actually done it before. It also suggests that we think that politics is, at its heart, simple. If somebody could just get in there, cut through the bull, roll up their sleeves and get things done, we could solve all our problems.
But that’s not how it works. Politics is, in fact, incredibly complex. That’s what makes it interesting. The idea that success in politics comes from things like “common sense” and “[insert your state’s name here] values” is absurd. Yet no matter how many times candidates hand us that line of baloney, we continue to believe it. Even in the area where businesspeople claim expertise — the economy — their experience is of limited value at best. Making widgets and setting macroeconomic policy are not the same thing.
As for Carly Fiorina, she obviously understands business, or she could have never risen to become CEO of a large corporation. But the sum total of her political experience is one disastrously failed Senate campaign. Like most businesspeople-turned-candidates, she probably assumed that her success in one area would translate to the other, but it didn’t. So now she wants to run for president, and the political media will act as though that isn’t a patently ridiculous notion.