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.
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
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?”
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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