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September 27, 2012 9:01 AM Mitt Romney: This Year’s Michael Dukakis

By Michael Kinsley

If, as seems possible, Mitt Romney is not elected U.S. president on Nov. 6, he will not be the first presidential candidate to run on the issue of competence and then lose because he ran an incompetent campaign. He will not even be the first governor of Massachusetts to do so.

In 1988, Michael Dukakis, who was ahead in the polls just after the Democratic convention, declared in his acceptance speech: “This election isn’t about ideology. It’s about competence.” Then he proceeded to blow a large lead and lose to George Bush the Elder, who turned out to be a tougher old bird than anyone suspected.

It would be hard to think of two politicians more different than Dukakis and Romney. Dukakis is a short, unassuming (for a pol) ethnic American. Romney is a tall, self-confident dynastic WASP (or at least WASM), one of whose campaign flubs was to claim his father was an immigrant from Mexico. (George Romney was born in Mexico because his family had fled there to practice polygamy unmolested by big government and burdensome regulations.)

Dukakis said the issue was not ideology but competence because he was trying to avoid getting pinned with the label “liberal.” In Romney’s case, the issue is framed less as a question of his opponent’s alleged incompetence than it is his own superb omnicompetence. As Nicholas Lemann explains in the current New Yorker, Romney’s self-assurance has its roots in his Mormon upbringing and his experience as a management consultant at Bain and Co., where he worked before going off to found Bain Capital and get really rich.

Supposed Smarts

A management consultant is someone who parachutes into some
crisis situation, or even some perfectly normal situation, and
tells people twice his age with 10 times his expertise what
they’re doing wrong. A private-equity partner (to put it in its
most flattering light) is someone who figures out what’s wrong,
buys the company and fixes it himself.


The management consultant’s creed is that nothing matters
but smarts. Raw brainpower trumps experience. What’s more, given
enough time, it turns itself into wisdom about any problem, like
some kind of IQ stem cells. (Private-equity types think they’re
even smarter than the management consultants, because they get
themselves a piece of the action, not just an hourly consulting
fee.)


Romney’s campaign has been all about success. His main
qualification for the presidency, in his opinion, is his time as
a successful business executive. He has been tested and proved
to be a winner. Originally the plan called for noting his
success running the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City,
Utah, and after that the state of Massachusetts. But the
Republican primary process turned any government experience,
even positive experience like Romney’s, into a negative.


Romney’s policy proposals, most notably his tax plans,
emphasize the importance of rewarding success. Nurturing success
and coddling successful people is the key to prosperity for all,
in Romney’s (no doubt sincere) view.


The notion that the Democrats are out to “punish success”
has long been a favorite Republican trope. The charge is unfair,
as anyone who has seen a Democratic politician kowtowing to
wealth or fame can testify. But Democrats at least retain some
skepticism about success. It is not self-ratifying. Much
individual success also helps the country, some does not. Even
when success is fully deserved and socially admirable, there is
no reason that it needs a tax break as well.


Now the ethic of success is supposed to sweep Romney into
the White House. “What is wrong with you people?” Romney may be
thinking these days. “I’ve got the Midas touch. There is no one
who is more successful than I am. Why don’t you want me to use
my success to do for America what I did for Staples?”


Ketchup Kudos

The answer is that success in business does not
necessarily, or even probably, guarantee success in politics.
These are different pursuits, requiring different talents. There
is no such thing as “raw brain power” that can be applied like
ketchup to any dish. (I suppose you have to really like ketchup
— and New York’s billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg — to
appreciate that analogy.)


Even if Romney wins the election, because of some
unpredicted development between now and Nov. 6, the judgment on
his campaign is fixed: It has been terrible. Despite his success
in business, he’s a lousy politician. And if he loses the
election, that will be a comment not just on his campaign
strategy, but also on his whole way of thinking.

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Comments

  • OKDem on September 27, 2012 12:55 PM:

  • Daniel Buck on September 27, 2012 7:58 PM:

    Michael,
    Excellent analysis. Success in business is not a harbinger of success in politics, nor vice versa, for that matter.

    One quibble. Dukakis was not unassuming. He was insufferably and notoriously arrogant. In that regard, he and Romney are soul brothers. Dan

  • Ebenezer Scrooge on September 27, 2012 8:23 PM:

    I've dealt with management consultants. Their creed might be that nothing matters but smarts, but they ain't very smart. MBA-smart, maybe. But that's not very impressive.

    Good executives use management consultants mostly for cover, and management consultants know it. The recommendation, more likely than not, is known to both executive and consultant on the day of the commission. Consultants are also used to poach the best practices of other firms--a sort of social lubricant designed to share useful information without violating genuine trade secrets. Neither application calls for much brainpower.

  • Daniel Kim on September 28, 2012 11:24 AM:

    Maybe there's some kind of Massachusetts Curse?

    Hey, I don't remember Dukakis looking so much like Peter Falk.

  • gdb on September 28, 2012 5:26 PM:

    If the economy collapses by sometime next Spring (but after 10/6), as predicted by the CB0 and Keynesian economists (who conveniently ignore their calculations as they support the re-election of BHO), Dems may indeed wish Mittens had won. He is a terrible campaigner with terrible policies. BHO is a so-so campaigner with inadequate policies--- And whoever is Prez in 2013 stands a good chance of being the poster child for Hoover-reincarnated for a generation of voters.

  • gdb on September 28, 2012 5:28 PM:

    If the economy collapses by sometime next Spring (but after 10/6), as predicted by the CB0 and Keynesian economists (who conveniently ignore their calculations as they support the re-election of BHO), Dems may indeed wish Mittens had won. He is a terrible campaigner with terrible policies. BHO is a so-so campaigner with inadequate policies--- And whoever is Prez in 2013 stands a good chance of being the poster child for Hoover-reincarnated for a generation of voters. And the opposing party in power for a generation.

  • captcrisis on September 28, 2012 8:46 PM:

    Dukakis had to face an astoundingly shallow opponent who lied repeatedly and whose entire campaign was based on the pledge of allegiance and opposition to (non-existent) flag-burning. And he had to face a media which let him get away with it. (The media is not rolling over for Romney the way they did for George H.W. Bush.) We forget this now.

  • JM917 on September 28, 2012 11:11 PM:

    With one exception, not a single successful businessman has ever been a successful president (or presidential candidate), and those successful presidents who did try their hand at business early in their careers always flopped. Examples of successful businessmen who were busts as presidents: Warren G. Harding (newspaper publisher), Herbert Hoover (mining enterpreneur), and George H.W. Bush (oilman). (Bush II was a success in neither pursuit.) Successful presidents who flubbed around in private business: most notably Lincoln (tried to run a store in New Salem) and Truman (failed haberdasher).

    The one exception: George Washington, who by a combination of marriage, luck, and acumen made himself into one of the wealthiest capitalist farmers and land speculators in late 18th century America.

    The talents that make for success in business do not translate into politics, and vice-versa.

  • Richard Cownie on September 29, 2012 9:10 AM:

    A keynesian doesn't have to ignore her calculations to prefer Obama over Romney: Obama's policies have been inadequate, but Romney/Ryan's would be absolutely disastrous - contractionary decreases in public spending,
    huge tax cuts for the rich, and dismantling Medicare and Medicaid.

    The massive disconnect between evidence-based economics and the
    policy choices of the US political elite, of both parties,
    is a huge problem. Nevertheless, a rational voter will choose the lesser of the two evils, and hope that a Dem
    wave leads to some real stimulus measures. If Tea-Party
    House Republicans continue to exercise power, the options
    will be greatly constrained.