Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney gestures during a campaign stop at Holland State Park on Tuesday, June 19, 2012, in Holland, Michigan. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
To look at Mitt Romney—the boxy power suits, the body toned by jogging—he is the financial industry personified. To listen to him, whether casually offering a $10,000 bet or flatly declaring, “corporations are people,” is to hear the unrestrained id of Wall Street. Remarkably, in the middle of a sluggish economy brought about by the irresponsibility of bankers gambling with other people’s money, Romney thinks this is his greatest asset.
Romney likes to contrast his own résumé with President Obama’s by saying, “To create jobs, it helps to have had one.” He means that a job is not really a job unless it is in the for-profit sector. Likewise, Romney asserts, “I’m a guy who has lived in the world of business. [If] you don’t balance your budget in business you go out of business. So I’ve lived balancing budgets.”
Even some of his erstwhile rivals say Romney’s experience in consulting and private equity qualifies him to be president. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who harshly criticized Romney’s record when running against him in 2008, recently offered this endorsement of Romney on CNN: “Governor Romney has almost a perfect record for a person to be running right now, experience in government, experience in business, understands the economy.”
It is notable that in a country that idolizes successful business executives and fetishizes great wealth, there have been so few presidents from a business background. That’s because Romney’s pitch is actually quite unusual in American history and it grows out of the recent evolution of the modern GOP.
Back in the Gilded Age the great titans of industry were generally averse to running for office. The massive inequality of the era created resentment, and being fabulously wealthy was seen as a liability rather than an asset in a popular election. “It was something to run away from,” says David Nasaw, a history professor at CUNY and author of biographies of Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst. The robber barons generally controlled public policy by pulling strings from behind the scenes, serving as patrons and advisors. “They preferred to have friends in office,” says Richard White, a professor of American history at Stanford.
The one notable outpost of robber barons in public office was the US Senate. Prior to the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, senators were chosen by state legislatures. Consequently, the Senate was filled with businessmen who literally bought their seats through bribery, hence the body’s nickname “millionaires club” which persists to this day. (Tea Party activists have recently raised the idea of repealing the Seventeenth Amendment.)
These were not a particularly distinguished group of statesmen. Contra Romney’s rhetoric, businessmen do not always come to Washington merely to get government out of the way of self-sufficient businesses. Rather, they often came specifically to get laws passed that would favor their personal interests. Many of them hailed from extractive industries such as mineral mining, or mass agribusiness like cattle ranching, which needed cheap access to federal land. Others, most notably Leland Stanford of California, were railroad barons who sought federal subsidies. “To think of business and government as two separate worlds utterly misportrays reality. The two are intertwined,” says White. “Without government [robber barons] have no business.”
They often proved ineffective legislators even by their own corrupt standards. “[Robber barons] were often not men of great talent outside a narrow realm,” notes White. Take Stanford, who purchased his Senate seat in order to get the federal government to forgive a loan that was coming due for the Central Pacific railroad company. He failed to do so. “Stanford was a pretty poor senator,” says White. “He was more useful to the railroad industry when controlling the [California] legislature than when he was in the Senate.”
After they lost the ability to buy Senate seats outright, captains of industry generally contented themselves with high-ranking cabinet positions. The secretary of the treasury often comes from the private sector. The most powerful treasury secretary since Alexander Hamilton was Andrew Mellon, who served under three consecutive Republican presidents: Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. (One contemporaneous joke meant to illustrate Mellon’s power was that the three presidents served under him.) Before coming to Washington, Mellon had expanded the business empire established by his father that included interests in banking, steel, aeronautics and oil.
Although the 1920s is generally remembered as an era of prosperity, it was one of growing inequality. Decisions by Mellon to loosen regulations or scale back their enforcement contributed to the crash of 1929. When the Great Depression hit, Mellon’s infamously cold-hearted anti-interventionist advice to Hoover—“Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate”—proved disastrous. Romney has echoed those themes today, urging Washington to “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt”  and let the real estate market “hit the bottom.”
More recent treasury secretaries from the financial industry have had blind spots similar to Mellon’s, whether due to ideology of conflicts of interest. William Simon, who was treasury secretary under Richard Nixon, came from Salomon Brothers and was a vociferous advocate of deregulation, as were Clinton’s first two Secretaries, Lloyd Bentsen and Robert Rubin, who had both been executives at financial firms. And, of course, Hank Paulson, who like Rubin came from Goldman Sachs, favored shoveling condition-free funds into Wall Street firms during the 2008 financial crisis. “Paulson made decisions because he had close ties to people on Wall Street, and those decisions were not always helpful,” says Jeff Madrick, author of The Age of Greed and a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.
The only example in American history of business executives playing the role in national government that Romney promises to fill—disinterested bearer of managerial acumen—was the class of patrician “Wise Men” who served in post-war cabinets. Many of them were recruited to government from Wall Street or corporate law firms. Although these were not ideologues like Mellon or crony capitalists like Stanford, they were quite capable of making of devastating mistakes. “The ‘Whiz Kids’ come out of Ford, where Robert McNamara trained, presumably applying to foreign policy and war-making the lessons learned at Ford and other corporations,” says Steven Fraser, a professor of American studies at Columbia who has written several books about Wall Street. And you know how well that turned out in Vietnam.
But no sooner did McNamara’s Vietnam quagmire end than the Reagan Revolution created a new paradigm that is favorable to Romney: the assumption among Republicans that the private sector is always superior to the public sector.
The election of 2000 was the first time a Romney-esque figure, George W. Bush, a minor oilman and partial baseball team owner before serving as governor of Texas, became president. Bush, the first “MBA president” and his powerful Vice President Dick Cheney, who had been CEO of Halliburton, disproved the notion that businessmen are efficient managers or fiscally responsible in public office. The Bush-Cheney record—bungled occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the non-response to Hurricane Katrina, exploding national debt—and recent economic history should make Romney’s pitch a bad one for this election cycle.
And yet here is Romney, acting as if businessmen hawking deregulation and tax cuts are the solution to our economic and budgetary woes, not the cause of them. Romney treats the relevance of his business experience as so self-evident that he has not even bothered to come up with a real theory to justify it. When Time’s Mark Halperin recently asked Romney how exactly his business career would guide his actions as president, Romney offered  only a restatement of his premise. He has even gone so far as to favorably mention a proposal  to amend the Constitution to require three years of business experience to be president. “You see then he or she would understand that the policies they’re putting in place have to encourage small business, make it easier for business to grow,” he explained. This, of course, would have disqualified great wartime leaders such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Even looking just at the historical economic record, Romney’s argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The economy has not performed better under presidents who had business experience. All four of the modern presidents who had significant business experience—Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and both George Bushes—presided  over significant economic downturns. The first three were blamed for failing to take effective corrective action and consequently lost their bids for re-election. That may not always have been fair. The OPEC oil embargo may simply have been beyond Carter’s power to affect. But it is far from obvious how business experience gives a president the ability to lower oil prices, as Romney promises to do, when they are really set by global supply and global demand.
“What you get in the 1980s and ‘90s is the efflorescence of free market ideology,” says Fraser. “That’s when you get this claim, ‘I’ve been a mover and shaker for a decade: that qualifies me to be a statesman because that’s when the economy functions best, when you minimize the intrusion of government.” If you believe that, then no matter what happens it must be the fault of government, not industry.
The Obama campaign is combating that argument on several fronts, including Romney’s own record as governor. During his tenure, Massachusetts ranked forty-seventh among the states in job creation. He left office with a $1 billion deficit and the most debt per resident of any state in the country. And Romney’s approach to governance could hardly be described as pragmatic technocracy. Despite the importance of the biotech sector to Massachusetts’ economy, Romney vetoed a bill providing for embryonic stem cell research.
Obama is also going after Romney’s record at Bain Capital, noting that Bain was actually in the business of creating wealth, not jobs, and that it frequently laid off workers, shuttered factories and led businesses into bankruptcy. They are actually making an important point about Romney’s qualifications, not just stirring up populist anger at the natural result of free market capitalism: “business” is an awfully broad category. Different business jobs reward different skill sets, each of which may have its own applicability, or lack thereof, to a given public office. “There are all kinds of business, some relevant and some not,” says Madrick. “It’s hard to argue that running financial firms makes you a good manager.” As Paul Krugman recently demonstrated  in his New York Times column, it is a myth that private equity managers such as Romney improved economic productivity. Economy-wide productivity stayed flat in the 1980s when the private equity industry burgeoned. Productivity took off in the 1990s (under career politician Bill Clinton) thanks to the digital technology revolution.
The business executive who has entered public office in recent years and can most plausibly claim to have brought his managerial innovations to government is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But, before Bloomberg made his vast fortune by inventing his news terminal, he was fired from the Salomon Brothers trading desk.
And then there are all the areas of governance in which—unlike economic growth or balanced budgets—what constitutes a good result, never mind the best way of reaching it, is a matter of opinion. How does familiarity with spreadsheets tell you what do about the unrest in Syria? Does having met a payroll make you better qualified to select Supreme Court justices? (George W. Bush’s initial selection of his under-qualified crony Harriet Miers suggests that it does not.)
Ultimately, governing is about policy choices, not creating wealth. Romney has embraced the economic platform of career politician Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI). That includes budget-busting tax cuts and unspecified spending cuts and tax reforms that are supposed to offset them. In other words, his business career notwithstanding, Romney’s economic policy would be indistinguishable from other far-right Republican ideologues.
In the 2008 campaign the same Rudy Giuliani who now highlights Romney’s economic management credentials mocked his record in Massachusetts. When recently asked about that by CNN’s Candy Crowley, Giuliani responded thusly : “[Massachusetts under Romney] had a growth of jobs of 40,000, we [New York City under Giuliani] had a growth of jobs of 500,000. So I was comparing what I thought was my far superior record to his.” In so doing, Giuliani completely undermined his own argument for Romney. Giuliani was a former prosecutor, not a private business manager. If he proved better at managing economic growth than Romney, what does that say about Romney’s central claim to the White House?