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Kinsley: The unsuccessful ethic of success

Romney has tried to sell Americans on his competence. So why has his presidential campaign been so lame?

September 27, 2012|By Michael Kinsley
  • Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally at Westerville South High School in Ohio.
Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally at Westerville South High School… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )

If, as seems possible, Mitt Romney is not elected U.S. president on Nov. 6, he will not be the first presidential candidate to run on the issue of competence and then lose because he ran an incompetent campaign. He will not even be the first governor of Massachusetts to do so.

In 1988, Michael Dukakis, who was ahead in the polls just after the Democratic convention, declared in his acceptance speech: "This election isn't about ideology. It's about competence." Then he proceeded to blow his large lead and lose to George H.W. Bush, who turned out to be a tougher old bird than anyone suspected.

It would be hard to think of two politicians more different than Dukakis and Romney. Dukakis is a short, unassuming (for a pol), ethnic American. Romney is a tall, self-confident, dynastic WASP (or at least WASM), one of whose campaign flubs was to claim his father was an immigrant from Mexico. (George Romney was born in Mexico because his family had fled there to practice polygamy unmolested by big government and burdensome regulations.)


Dukakis said the issue was not ideology but competence because he was trying to avoid getting pinned with the label "liberal." In Romney's case, the issue is framed less as a question of his opponent's alleged incompetence than it is his own superb omni-competence.

As Nicholas Lemann explains in the current New Yorker, Romney's self-assurance has its roots in his Mormon upbringing and his experience as a management consultant at Boston Consulting Group and Bain & Co., where he worked before going off to found private-equity giant Bain Capital and get really rich.

A management consultant is someone who parachutes into some crisis situation, or even some perfectly normal situation, and tells people twice his age with 10 times his expertise what they're doing wrong. A private-equity partner (to put it in its most flattering light) is someone who figures out what's wrong, buys the company and fixes it himself.

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The management consultant's creed is that nothing matters but smarts: Raw brainpower trumps experience. What's more, given enough time, it turns itself into wisdom about any problem, like some kind of IQ stem cells. (Private-equity types think they're even smarter than the management consultants, because they get themselves a piece of the action, not just an hourly consulting fee.)

Romney's campaign has been all about success. His main qualification for the presidency, in his opinion, is his time as a successful business executive. He has been tested and proved to be a winner. Originally the plan called for noting his success running the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and after that the state of Massachusetts. But the Republican primary process turned any government experience, even positive experience like Romney's, into a negative.

Romney's policy proposals, most notably his tax plans, emphasize the importance of rewarding success. Nurturing success and coddling successful people are the keys to prosperity for all, in Romney's (no doubt sincere) view.

The notion that the Democrats are out to "punish success" has long been a favorite Republican trope. The charge is unfair, as anyone who has seen a Democratic politician kowtowing to wealth or fame can testify. But Democrats at least retain some skepticism about success. It is not self-ratifying. Much individual success also helps the country; some does not. Even when success is fully deserved and socially admirable, there is no reason that it needs a tax break as well.

Now the ethic of success is supposed to sweep Romney into the White House. "What is wrong with you people?" Romney may be thinking these days. "I've got the Midas touch. There is no one who is more successful than I am. Why don't you want me to use my success to do for America what I did for Staples?"

The answer is that success in business does not necessarily, or even probably, guarantee success in politics. These are different pursuits requiring different talents.

Even if Romney wins the election, because of some unpredicted development between now and Nov. 6, the judgment on his campaign is fixed: It has been terrible. Despite his success in business, he's a lousy politician. And if he loses the election, that will be a comment not just on his campaign strategy but also on his whole way of thinking.

Michael Kinsley, a former editorial page editor of The Times, is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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