Help Wanted: GOP Managers

Help Wanted: GOP Managers

With executive pay scales soaring, only bumblers are willing to work for the Bush Administration.


It seems that the Republican Party, the business party, the party of management, has a lot of difficulty managing. Our government cannot execute the basic plays. Let’s look past Katrina, and FEMA, and Michael Brown. Let’s look past the mismanagement of the oil and gas leases out West, the FDA’s bungling over Guidant and its appointment (subsequently retracted) of a veterinarian to head the Office of Women’s Health. Let’s just consider the new Medicare drug program. The Bush Administration can’t even perform a simple thing like getting people off the state Medicaid computer list and onto the Medicare computer list. In 2004 there was a serious shortage of flu vaccine. John Kerry failed to make an issue of it, but the voters should have been alarmed. It was an omen of the bungling to come in New Orleans. This is a government that cannot do even simple things.

It appears that the Republicans when in power have no good managers. In an economy of superstars who make millions, the GOP can’t afford to hire them, especially the ones who are indifferent to public service and gravitate to the Republicans in the first place–or to no party at all. Three decades ago the average pay of CEOs of the hundred biggest American corporations was a mere $1.3 million. By 2000 the average pay had climbed to $37.5 million. One can see why the old Republican well-to-do, like Henry Stimson or C. Douglas Dillon, are no longer in government. By contrast, this summer who will still remember John Snow, who is soon to be our former Treasury Secretary?

What may be more crippling to Bush’s efforts to recruit people is not the CEO pay but the pay of the vice presidents just below them. That’s where the government might look for talent to manage at the assistant secretary level. But it is questionable how many of these managers can afford public service–for a year perhaps, but not for three or four, much less two presidential terms. A friend of mine in a top-rank job at a huge global firm told me of a colleague of his in a rising American company. The colleague was now head of personnel, or human relations. “And do you know what his salary is?” my friend told me. “It’s $5 million a year.”

Five million dollars a year–for a personnel director. It is unlikely this man is going to go home and tell his wife, “I’m ready to work for $120,000 a year because I want to help George Bush reorganize the Census Bureau.”

The proof of the Bush predicament is that he has to hire lawyers–and not even the ones who have experience managing corporate firms. Those are also out of his reach, in terms of income. To head Homeland Security and take on a staggering management challenge, Bush brought in a government lawyer, Michael Chertoff, with scant management experience; recently as a judge he had a secretary and two law clerks. And when Chertoff recruits, he seems to struggle to find anyone besides other government lawyers, also with no serious management experience.

When I was 28 and a young policy analyst at the Energy Department under Jimmy Carter, I met a lot of old hands from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department and even a few from the Office of Management and Budget. The old salts, even the liberals, admired the Republicans as managers. “The Democrats come up with the programs,” a grizzled liberal numbers cruncher told me once, “and then the Republicans come in and show you how to manage them.” But he meant Republicans of the Eisenhower-Nixon-Ford era: grumpy old men who were vice presidents at big companies like Ford or General Motors. “Here’s a telling fact,” said a professor friend at a law school. “The biggest increase in rule-making, literally the increase in the pages of the Federal Register, came in the Nixon-Ford Administration.” It was not the center-left but the center-right that brought in the managers who issued all the rules that made the liberal programs work.

Now what is most distinctive about Bush is that he’s floundering to find managers. “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” is going to be a mantra of this age. Alas for the public weal, the Republican Party has undergone a makeover from the Eisenhower era: Now it’s the party of academics and neocons, i.e., of people with “ideas,” or who think they have ideas, and with no idea how to manage. (Why do intellectuals have such trouble giving credit to the people under them?)

There should be some sympathy for George Bush’s attempts to persuade a talented human relations manager to give up $5 million a year to take a job writing regulations for the Federal Register. It seems unfair to question the patriotism of such people. After all, it’s not a sacrifice for one year; it’s a sacrifice for four, or even eight. It’s hard to take in the scale of the sacrifice. Liberals tend to sneer about the revolving door and how so many in the GOP cash in on public service via lobbying on K Street. That’s true enough for the types like Michael Brown or others who end up in government because they can’t hold a decent job. But it seems far less true about talented corporate managers. The cut in pay is just too breathtaking. So Bush is left to recruit among, well, failed businesspeople like himself, or other lost souls like Brown, or lawyers with a bent for public service. Yet in the big firms where the partners make $2.5 million a year, many lawyers will no longer take a pay cut, as they may have done in the 1960s or even the ’70s.

It’s harder even for lawyers to escape the golden handcuffs–though it’s easier if, like Chertoff, one never made this kind of money. To be sure, lawyers still have a certain Robespierre-like urge for public service. A judge I admire has a cartoon tacked on his door: a hooded executioner saying to another hooded man with an ax, “Yes, I could make more money in the private sector, but in the private sector I can’t chop off people’s heads.” I doubt corporate managers put up such cartoons, for even in the private sector, they do have opportunities to cut off people’s heads. The point is, we lawyers are no substitute for good corporate managers.

The only decent managers left are now in the Army. That’s why some think the Army will end up running Medicare. But even young West Point grads are bailing out for corporate jobs.

It’s easy to sympathize with Bush’s management predicament, but he and his Republican predecessors did much to create it. They have created a country with super-sized, bloated executive salaries. They have helped create a plutocracy. If a plutocracy has trouble governing, virtually by definition, since it cannot call upon its own for public service, then Bush and the Republicans have themselves to blame.

The irony is, to get the old Republican expertise, we have to turn to Democrats. Indeed, many of the Democrats really are like the old Stimson-type Republicans. Bill Clinton can recruit from the business world in a way that a Republican cannot. Of course, as a union-side labor lawyer, I was and still am dismayed by the political views of these business Democrats. Yes, Robert Rubin and the other Clintonite types have their flaws. OK. But at least they know how to manage. Look at the revolving-door people in Bush’s DC–it’s unclear how many of them could hold a serious corporate job.

The problem for Bush is that even the minions of Big Business get the salaries of sports superstars. In the new plutocratic United States, the bumbling Bush Administration has trouble even pulling in players from the minors.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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