About a decade ago, Washington Monthly published an article comparing the decision making styles of the Bush administration (dominated by the business mindset) and the Clinton administration. The article described the Bush approach as clean – the people in charge made decisions and people below them in the hierarchy carried them out. The people in charged asked for and received feedback and input but they were, in Bush’s term, the deciders. The article described the Clinton approach as messy and at times chaotic, but pointed out that the decisions coming out the Clinton administration tended to be better decisions. The Clinton approach involved lots of discussion and debate, a cacophony of competing voices and ideas. The result was that by the time the Clinton folks arrived at a course of action, all sorts of potential problems had been considered and integrated into the proposals.
The Bush approach is typical of the business world. A handful of people make decisions everyone else implements them. Theory says businesses are highly attuned to information – that business leaders receive feedback through multiple mechanisms – everything from the standard financial reporting to turnover rates and customer feedback. Business schools have spent decades trying to reinforce the notion the successful businesses are open to feedback. The reality is different. Employees have a great many disincentives to providing bad news to management so bad news often doesn’t get to decision makers. Business literature is filled with examples of businesses that get bad news and ignore or rationalize it away. Despite the business school argument (a favorite, by the way of Mitt Romney) that “management” is a discrete set of skills transferable to any business, business literature is replete with examples of successful business persons who figure their skills will work in any industry but whose ventures outside of their basic industry fail in sometimes spectacular ways. Successful business leaders far too often become trapped in a bubble of bad information and ego-stroking. Again, business literature has cases of CEOs who thought everything was just fine until the bankruptcy attorneys arrived.
If you look at the fiascoes and disasters of the Bush administration, you see clearcut examples of the business mindset at its most toxic. Bad news was argued away, while even the faintest glimmer of good news was trumpeted from on high. Bad decisions were ruthlessly doubled down because no one in the inner circle dared disagree. Bad news wasn’t communicated up the hierarchy and those in charge remained in a bubble of comforting, reassuring information. When the collapse came, they couldn’t cope with it.
Mitt Romney ran a nearly perfect business school campaign. He talked endlessly with “investors” large and small, tailored his message to each audience like a good marketer, attacked the incompetence of current management, projected worst case scenarios in an attempt to validate a change in management and projected equally rosy images of what would happen after that change in management. He ran his presidential campaign as he would have run a takeover bid of a large company. He packaged self interest as patriotism and marketed it to voters in the same way he would have marketed an IPO to investors. His 2008 loss was integrated into his thinking – just like the good b-school clone he is, he examined what went wrong and made adjustments. The endless flip flopping and changing positions was an indication of his core principles – you have to sell people on buying a product and the product he was selling was management Mitt Romney style. In the b-school model, your core values and beliefs are irrelevant because what you’re selling is a skillset. “I can manage this,” you say, “I have the skills.”
The most common criticisms of government – inefficiency, bureaucratic, unresponsive, isolated from the people and so on – are equally applicable to large businesses. Don’t believe me? Try dealing with an airline or a big bank sometime. Look at the American auto industry which should have spent the 1990s planning for the future and instead fell into a rut of producing behemoth SUVs. Even Hollywood studios dump tens of millions of dollars into comically awful movies and outright flops (the story behind Disney’s John Carter is a good example of the ways in which big business manages to outsmart itself and dump piles of good money after bad into money losing propositions; you had people successful in some areas who simply couldn’t hear that they might not succeed in this one).
There’s been some rather grim post-mortems of the Romney campaign focused on the fact that it sunk massive resources into Plan A and had no Plan B. When their GOTV system crashed, there wasn’t a back up plan. When Romney lost, there wasn’t a concession speech prepared. Romney’s campaign paid large bonuses to his staffers after the lackluster convention and gaffe filled European trip – ironically, that as well is the business model. They met the goals and so they got the money. You launch the product on time and hope it works. If it doesn’t, you go back to the drawing board.
The idea is that you do your research up front, you test with focus groups and maybe even test the new product in a targeted market, see how it works then introduce it on a larger scale, you roll it out in a major campaign. You can look at Romney’s 2008 campaign as a test marketing effort that informed his 2012 campaign. He adapted afterwards, wooing conservatives far more intently to blunt the rise of candidate’s to his right. His sudden pivot to the center in the first debate was deliberately planned and timed to get the maximum benefit. It wasn’t some unprecedented move but I think it was Romney’s one move that surprised the Obama team (the timing not the move itself). Although Romney may have been uniquely dishonest among American politicians, that makes sense – he was not selling ideology, he was selling his management skills and winning the election would be proof of his superior management – if you win, who cares if you lie? As long as it isn’t illegal. In essence, the Romney folks were saying “No one really cares if AT&T supports one cause or another as long as our cell phone is good.”
Here’s the problem though. Government isn’t a business. Politics aren’t a business. There are things both can learn from businesses (and vice versa) but they aren’t the same thing, they don’t exist for he same reasons and the skills required to succeed at one are distinctly at variance with the skills to succeed in the other. The decision making processes are radically different, the goals are radically different, even the communication processes are different.
Successful government requires constant discussion and compromise, constant engagement. Unlike the CEO who can bark orders and have them carried out, Presidential power is limited and requires careful work building coalitions and majorities. Congress isn’t a board of directors – each member of Congress can accurately be envisioned as a leader in his/her own right, the head of a small and powerful part of the government. An electoral campaign isn’t a takeover bid of an underperforming company. The metaphors in which successful business persons think can only take them so far in politics. Mitt Romney and the entire Republican party apparatus pushed the metaphor as far as they could. They nearly succeeded and at the end of the day they accomplished a lot. But they started with the wrong questions and ended up at the wrong answer. It’s not a business and the intellectual models of the business world don’t work out in the political world. A candidate isn’t a product to be sold and government isn’t a business to be managed. Electioneering isn’t a marketing campaign and serving voter and constituents isn’t like selling a product or service.