Photo by Lev Nisnevitch
THE WEEKLY STANDARD
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:
You diagnose the problem. You put the right team together to solve the problem. You listen to alternative viewpoints. You insist on gathering data before you make decisions and analyze the data looking for trends. The result of this process is, you hope, that you make better decisions. You typically also have processes in place to see if it's working or not working, and you make adjustments from time to time.
That's it. Romney loves the give-and-take. "I have to see conflict," he says. "The last thing you want is people coming in saying 'We all agree. Here's the recommendation.' I know I don't want to proceed on that basis." As governor of Massachusetts, Romney balked at extending Boston's mass transit system until he'd heard the case against it. Once he had, he decided to approve the extension.
Romney used this method of analysis and decision-making for six years with Bain Consulting in Boston, where his task was reviving failing companies. He used it again for 15 years when he headed Bain Capital, which specialized in investing in start-ups and late-stage turnarounds. Romney emphasized it while keeping the scandal-plagued 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah from collapsing and later in putting together a health insurance plan for Massachusetts that covered all the state's uninsured and got the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature and Senator Ted Kennedy to sign on.
And he's used it to fashion a blueprint for his presidential campaign. Romney weighed alternatives before adopting the early primary strategy of concentrating on the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire on the assumption that he must win one or both of them to spur his candidacy and win the nomination. He's stuck to that strategy. Romney decided how much money his campaign needs to spend rather than how much it must raise. If there's a gap (and there has been), it would be filled by Romney's personal funds.
One more thing. Romney believes getting the right people on your team is crucial. "I like smart people," he wrote in Turnaround, his chronicle of saving the Winter Olympics. "Bill Bain, my old boss, used to joke that most things can be fixed, but smart--or dumb--is forever." Romney has a knack for persuading smart people to leave lucrative jobs to work for him for less pay.
Now, the overriding question about Romney is whether his approach would work in a Washington bitterly divided along partisan and ideological lines. Romney thinks so--no surprise there--and he cites as evidence his success in working with Democrats in Massachusetts. They were happy to share credit with the governor. The viciously partisan Democrats who control Congress wouldn't be so complaisant.
But by treating every issue as a problem to be solved, I suspect Romney could make headway on domestic policy, even on divisive issues like Social Security, health care, and immigration. Foreign and national security policy wouldn't be as amenable to the Romney scenario of debate and compromise. Nor would crisis management of the urgent and perilous kind a president is expected to handle. Romney's experience has been in long-term crisis management.
For Romney, Washington is a large turnaround project that he's impatient to take on. He would subject the entire federal bureaucracy, agency by agency, department by department, to a "strategic audit." This amounts to a full-scale frisk to find what doesn't work and what can be streamlined.
"I ask people why Washington is so broken," Romney told me:
State after state is able to balance their budget every year, solve tough problems from time to time, fix their schools, fix their roads. They get the job done. Why is it Washington cannot? The most frequent answer I get is that Washington is so driven by who has power and the stakes of having power or not having it are so huge that people have ignored the interest of the country and placed the interest of their party's power ahead of it.
That must change, he says. "It's time to have some people put the country first, and I think there are Democrats as well as Republicans who will do that. In Massachusetts my political and philosophical adversary has been Ted Kennedy. We disagree on almost all issues . . . but we were able to collaborate on the health care solution in a way that will be a step forward."
That optimism has a familiar ring. Governors who become president--Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush--invariably think what worked for them at the state level will work in Washington. Sometimes it does. Reagan's ability to attract Democratic support did. Sometimes it doesn't. Carter touted zero-based budgeting as an effective tool in controlling spending. It wasn't.
Given his background, Romney is a special case. No president has had his long experience in the corporate world. Herbert Hoover once ran a mining company but he was essentially an engineer. More to the point, Hoover failed as president. Romney isn't unique in insisting the skills he developed as a business consultant and CEO would be useful in Washington. Ross Perot made a similar claim when he ran for president in 1992 and 1996. But Perot was an oddball who never would have gotten his way in Washington. Romney is quite normal.
Besides rigorous analysis, he says he'd bring the "can do" spirit of the business community to a Romney presidency. "I have spent a lifetime getting things done," he told a crowd in Hopkinton, New Hampshire, recently. "In the private sector if all you do is talk, you get fired." The implication, of course, is that all Washington does is talk.
Two episodes when Romney ran Bain Capital are striking. In July 1996, a Bain managing director, Robert Gay, quietly informed Romney that his 14-year-old daughter Melissa had been missing for several days in New York City after attending a rock concert. Gay didn't ask for help in finding her, but he got it anyway.
Romney shut down the Bain office in Boston and took most of its 30 employees to Manhattan to search for the girl. He set up a "war room" in a hotel and devised a five-part plan. Dividing the city into sectors, Romney and his partners enlisted 250 people from firms they'd worked with in New York, mostly on Wall Street, to join the search. They blanketed the city with 250,000 flyers with the girl's picture and organized a media campaign. Twenty hours later, a New Jersey family heard of the dragnet, called the police, and reported Melissa was safe with them.
Five years earlier, Romney had been summoned from Bain Capital to lead a turnaround of the company which had created Bain Capital as a spin-off and where Romney had worked for six years, Bain Consulting. The firm was drowning in debt and on the verge of collapse. Romney applied the same approach he used to revitalize other companies, stressing analysis and data. The turnaround took nearly two years and worked because Romney persuaded Bain Consulting's partners to commit to staying. If they'd fled, the firm would have crumpled. Only one partner left. "Mitt Romney resurrected the consulting company's finances and then returned to his enormously successful and profitable Bain Capital," writes Hugh Hewitt, the talk radio host, in his book about Romney, A Mormon in the White House?
A legitimate worry about Romney is his lack of experience in foreign policy. He boasts of traveling to 40 countries as a Bain executive, but that's hardly preparation for guiding a nation's relationship with other countries and for serving as commander in chief. As a presidential candidate, Romney has sought to take the same position on foreign affairs he would if he were president.
Two examples. When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran visited New York in September, Romney wanted to take a strong stand, but he found in discussion with advisers that his options were limited. Several advisers recommended he urge the State Department to deny Ahmadinejad a visa, but it emerged in the analysis-and-debate session that this would be illegal. The president is required by law to allow foreign leaders to attend meetings at the United Nations in New York. Instead Romney publicly said that Ahmadinejad should be disinvited from addressing the U.N.'s general assembly and from appearing at Columbia University. And he should be indicted under the U.N.'s Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide for advocating the destruction of Israel. This, in effect, is Romney's presidential position.
The second example occurred on Romney's trip to Israel last January. He arranged to visit the fence along the West Bank and was surprised by the reluctance of Israeli military officers to defend the building of the barrier. Romney asked the number of terrorist attacks before and after the fence was erected. Romney, an aide says, is "a before and after guy" in making judgments. When told attacks had dropped to zero, Romney said the Israelis shouldn't be apologetic about the fence. If the United States had faced the same terrorist threat, "we'd have built it 10 feet higher and called it a wall."
In formulating foreign policy, Romney says he favors the same freewheeling debate that he relishes in discussions on domestic policy. "Bringing together the right people who have differing viewpoints and perspectives and welcoming those differences"--that's his goal, he told me. In this regard, he suggests he'd be a bit like Bush.
"I remember reading these stories that there are arguments in the Bush administration and Colin Powell thinks one thing and Condoleezza Rice another. I mean, great! Why is this a story? That's what you expect. . . . You want that kind of debate. If you don't have that, the danger is that you miss risks and opportunities that you otherwise would find." Just as you would in the world of business.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.