The Magazine

The Man Who Wants to Fix Washington

Mitt Romney thinks the skills he acquired in the cutthroat world of corporate turnarounds will make him a good president.

Nov 26, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 11 • By FRED BARNES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

MITT.ByMejia.1.jpgSculpture by Herman Mejia
Photo by Lev Nisnevitch

Mitt Romney and George W. Bush both graduated from Harvard Business School in 1975. "We did attend one class together," Romney recalls, "but I must admit that we didn't hang out together or do things."

Nor did they become friends. Bush was single and fresh from five years in the Texas Air National Guard. A professor who taught Bush remembers him as a mediocre student who rarely participated in the give-and-take of class discussions. Bush earned an MBA and later wrote that Harvard "gave me the tools and vocabulary of the business world." But these skills didn't become central to his political career, much less his presidency.

Romney had a different Harvard experience. He was married with two kids. "I had passed the young and irresponsible stage," Romney told me. "I had a home and a mortgage. .  .  . I went at it with a lot of energy. I was also convinced that because I'd not come from one of these famous Eastern schools I'd probably flunk out. And I did a lot better than that." Romney had gone to Brigham Young University in Utah. At Harvard, he finished in the top 5 percent of his class and was named a Baker Scholar, a prestigious academic honor.

Romney took from his Harvard years a way of thinking and making decisions that he has applied relentlessly through two decades as a business executive, three as CEO and savior of the 2002 Winter Olympics, four as governor of Massachusetts, and now for a year as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. If elected president, Romney intends to apply this approach in Washington.

His presidential style, as a result, would be far different from President Bush's--or any other president's. Romney would be coolly analytical and less political. Bush tends to follow his political instincts and rely on gut feelings in making decisions. A businessman who has dealt with both Romney and Bush, and admires both of them, says Romney "has internalized" what he learned at Harvard--particularly the value of debate and dissent--"but Bush hasn't." It's an important distinction.

Romney is not primarily a politician. He's a successful corporate executive with a second career in politics--a second career similar to Ronald Reagan's. He still slips into business consultant lingo, talking (at least to me) about "the breakthrough insight" and a person's "skill set" and "the selection, motivation, and guidance of people."

And because his résumé is heavy on business and relatively light on politics, the political community, the press, and presidential scholars are dubious of his qualifications for the presidency. Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution says his "hunch" is that the business sector is "a very bad place" for picking up what's required to be an effective president.

I'm not so sure. Romney is extremely smart, confident as a decision maker, and adept at finding grounds for agreement. His idea of the perfect deal is not when one side wins but when "you find a new alternative that everybody agrees is the right way to go. That doesn't always happen." Not in Washington anyway--Romney understands this. "Business and government are different," he told me.

Unlike everyone else running for president, though, Romney has a new method for solving problems and taking on difficult issues. Sure, it's a process that was developed outside of government, but Romney honed it in the cutthroat world of business consulting and corporate turnarounds, compared to which the fighting in Washington is tame. Do Hillary Clinton or John Edwards or Fred Thompson or John McCain have anything better to offer? All they have are agendas. Romney has one of those, too.

While Romney is conservative, his approach to governing is not ideological. "He's super-pragmatic," says an adviser. "He's an eclectic conservative." And this has alarmed several conservatives who have met with Romney. "He kept saying he's a problem solver," says an economic adviser who believes this would put Romney at a disadvantage in Washington. "He may not be ideological, but Nancy Pelosi certainly will be."

The Romney way is very simple. It consists of attacking a problem or considering an issue or policy through vigorous debate, with dissenting opinions encouraged and outside advice eagerly sought, and relying on as much hard data as possible. At the end of the process, the leader makes a decision that may or may not coincide with the "vision" or "concept" or "framework"--Romney's words--that initiated the discussion in the first place.

Here's how Romney describes the process: