Saturday, July 28, 2012

Mitt's Biggest Problem: He Doesn't Like Politics

Mitt Romney suffers from one disadvantage in this presidential campaign: he just doesn't like politics.There are, obviously, lots of reasons not to like politics or politicians. But if you're going to be a politician, you will probably be a better one if you actually like politics.

Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had very little in common ideologically, but both of them loved the pomp and circumstance of the political game. Reagan particularly enjoyed the performance aspect of it, and Clinton was never more at home than when he was pressing the flesh in the middle of a crowd. 

Romney, however, doesn't like either the show or the personal interaction with voters. He likes the challenge of being in charge, and it doesn't take much Freudian analysis to figure out that he's following in his Dad's footsteps. But his troubles at the Olympics highlighted his lack of interest in basic showmanship. He didn't just commit several gaffes in a couple of days, he didn't just "blow what was seemingly an un-blowable opportunity." He was totally unprepared for some simple gladhanding because he hadn't prepared any opportunities for self-promotion. He held a fundraiser in London, which is his kind of environment - close, personal interaction with other rich people. But if Reagan had made this trip, he and his team would have had the entire thing very carefully stage-managed. The candidate would have had several photo-ops with American athletes, he would have made vague and probably inaccurate references to his experience as a lifeguard and a radio sportscaster, he would have waved and smiled a lot, and he would have spouted platitudes and cliches about how sports transcends the nasty business of politics. It would have been totally cheesy and sentimental, as well as a blatantly hypocritical attempt to appear above politics while scoring political points. And it would have worked brilliantly. As a liberal Democrat, I would have gnashed my teeth about the superficiality of it all, but there would have been nothing I could have done about it. Particularly because none of the three candidates that I supported during the '80's had the foggiest clue how to do anything like it.

Romney, on the other hand, made no effort to participate in the showmanship of the Games. He didn't even show any interest in watching his wife's horse. He didn't meet the athletes. He could have talked about how the technological innovations showcase American ingenuity and creativity - nope. He made very little mention of his own experience running an Olympics. He didn't show people he was having a good time at the biggest party on the planet. He's like the guy who goes to the library when everyone else is at the homecoming game. The ultimate goal of politics is not to pass legislation; it's to give people the opportunity to enjoy their lives. 

Obama understands all of this. He likes the intense policy debates and the games he has to play with Republicans, but he also genuinely enjoys standing in front of thousands of people and inspiring them. Most fortunately for Obama, Michelle clearly enjoys the attention of the public as well. 

One of the great ironies of politics is that the really important stuff - the intricacies and details of policy and legislation - is really boring, and generally impenetrable to the public at large. Symbols matter because they translate the boring stuff into something that the average citizen can understand. Great politicians don't just get the importance of symbols and the show - they like translating the language of the boring stuff into the language of the public. 

Mitt Romney doesn't just not like this process, he doesn't appreciate how important it is, or why he should do it. Which means that he has surrounded himself with people who think the same way. Most of them stayed home and didn't even join him on this trip.

People who enjoy the games they play are almost always better at them than people who don't derive the same satisfaction. Just ask anyone in London this week.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Memo to Mitt: Politics is tougher than business

Mitt Romney is making two mistakes in this presidential race. His first mistake is that he thinks that he's tougher than Barack Obama because he's a businessman, and Barack Obama is a politician, and business people are tougher than politicians. His second mistake is that he expects the American people to automatically give him greater respect and deference because of that. He expects that when he says that something is true, or he gives his perspective on how events unfolded in his life, his explanation will be accepted at face value. 

My favorite example of people in business making this mistake of thinking that they are tougher than people in government is a tech company (I think it was Microsoft) that was being sued by the US Department of Justice. The Microsoft folks assumed that they were much tougher than the dweeby government lawyers, because they operate in the hypercompetitive environment of the computer industry, whereas government lawyers are bureaucrats who spend their hours trying to figure out how to interfere with businesses making money. What the Microsofties forgot was that prosecutors at the DoJ deal with foreign intelligence agencies (remember the KGB?), Mafia kingpins, drug lords, and other people who will lie, cheat, steal, and kill to achieve their goals. On a toughness scale, Microsoft's competitors - geeks with fast calculators who drink too much coffee - do not compare well to spies, assassins, and gangsters. Steve Jobs was a tough competitor. Unless you compare him to, say, Saddam Hussein, John Gotti, or the Soviet Union.

What people in business fail to appreciate is that they spend most of their time with people who agree with them, whereas politicians spend a lot of their time with people disagree with them. Most people in business do not have daily, direct contact with their competitors. They spend most of their time with people in their own company, with whom they have common goals. Or they spend time with their customers or vendors, people with whom they are trying to reach a mutually satisfactory accommodation. It's not necessarily easy negotiating with your co-workers, customers, or vendors. But those people generally are not doing everything in their power to stop you from achieving your goals. They may disagree with you, or even dislike you. But they're not out to destroy you. Your competitors may be trying to do that. But you don't have to deal with them literally face-to-face every day. And they rarely make it personal. In business, it's perfectly legitimate to question a competitor's product or strategy, but it's off-limits to attack their character.

The Democrats are going to attack every facet of Mitt Romney's experience, in the public and private sectors, in a way that none of his competitors in the private sector ever did. They're going to raise as many questions about his character as they possibly can. It's a nasty, unpleasant business, but anyone who thinks that the practice of democracy is all about the grandiose articulation of principles has done a very selective reading of history.

This is where Romney's second mistake is potentially fatal. The Democrats are going to raise questions in the minds of voters, and a fair number of voters are going to consider those questions legitimate. Mitt Romney is having trouble answering questions like when did he actually, officially, really, truly, honest-to-God-cross-my-heart leave Bain Capital, because he has never had to face those questions before. He has lived his life according to these precepts: the explanations of him and his lawyers will always be sufficient to answer questions about whether or not his actions were proper. If he signs a piece of paper, he and his associates have cleared it with the lawyers, so it's OK. Period, end of story. He simply has no experience with people who do not automatically accept his ability to explain fine legalistic details of his professional life. He assumes his own credibility, so he has no idea how to establish that credibility. His lawyers have both assumed that credibility as well, and worked hard to prevent anyone from even raising any questions about it. Mitt Romney has always had people around him who ran interference for him on questions of legality. It's been a closed loop; he hired people who assumed that what he was doing was legal and proper, and they then kept him in a bubble of legality and propriety. He's never had to question his own assumptions. So the Democrats are doing that for him.

Professional politicians, however, operate on the assumption that they will be questioned on those details, and they will have to explain them. They know they will be expected to release their tax returns. They know that their personal credibility is something that they have to establish very carefully, and then work very hard to maintain. They deal on a day-to-day basis with people who questions their assumptions and their legitimacy. 

Mitt Romney thinks that he, the son of a wealthy father, who had every possible advantage in life and who has spent most of his life surrounded by people who are very much like him, and who think like him, is tougher than the son of a single mother who had to use his own personal discipline and focus to rise to the highest levels of a society that, not so long ago, erected substantial barriers to success for people like him. Mitt Romney's formative experiences were in offices and boardrooms. Barack Obama's formative experiences were on the streets of Chicago. Mitt Romney may never realize that he has substantially underestimated how tough Barack Obama can be. But even if he realizes it tomorrow, it will probably be too late.

One of the toughest jobs in the world is selling yourself to someone who doesn't necessarily trust you, particularly when they can choose an alternative with one simple push of a button. Welcome to American politics on the national stage, Mr. Romney.