The candidate to watch

Mitt Romney

Consultant in Chief


November 10, 2007

"I love data." Mitt Romney has been speaking for less than two minutes when he makes this profession.

The former Massachusetts governor is meeting with the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal to discuss his campaign for the presidency. And he starts not with the economy, "global jihad" or the country as a whole, but with himself.

While some have questioned Mr. Romney's authenticity, the immediate impression he gives is that he speaks straight from the heart. Especially where data are concerned. "I used to call it 'wallowing in the data,'" Mr. Romney continues. "Let me see the data. I want to see the client's data, the competitors' data. I want to see all the data."

This is not only a description of his approach to business. It sums up his political outlook: "You may ask me questions about topics that I haven't studied in depth. I'll be happy to give you my assessment of what I think at this point. But before I would actually make a decision on a very important topic, I would really study it in depth."

At one level, this is a caveat so obvious that most politicians wouldn't bother offering it. But Mr. Romney gives the impression that this is a methodological first principle so important to how he does things that he wants everyone he meets to understand it about him.

Having established his biography, he turns without pause to the question, which he asks himself, "Why am I running for president?"

The answer to this question is as abstract as his overture was personal. The "I" in the question seems to disappear: "I think what America faces now are extraordinary challenges, which, if we deal with appropriately, will allow us to remain the world's military and economic superpower for an indefinite period of time."

Mr. Romney does then introduce a personal element, but it's not his own person. "If we instead take the course that Hillary Clinton would prescribe," he warns, "it would lead to America becoming the France of this century -- having started as a superpower, ending up as a second-tier power."

Those challenges include: "global jihad" and "the emergence of Asia as an economic challenge." On the domestic front, he lists: "entitlement-driven financial distress," "overuse of foreign oil" and "the inability of our school system to prepare our kids for the jobs of today, let alone tomorrow." To that, Mr. Romney adds, "the inability of the health-care system to rein in the explosive growth in costs." Needless to say, he thinks "we have a good prospect of solving all of them and remaining the world's power."

Those, then, are the problems that, in his word, "drive" him. And it's a pretty good list. But rather than explain why he is the person to solve them, Mr. Romney shifts gears to talk about himself in another sense.

Politicians don't like to describe themselves as ideological, but most have a core of political precepts. Mr. Romney describes his thus: "Obviously, I have -- just like in the consulting world -- I have 'concepts' that I believe. I believe the free market works and government doesn't -- that when government takes over a function which can be effectively managed in the free market, we make a huge mistake. I think government is almost by necessity inefficient, inflexible, duplicative, wasteful, expensive and burdensome." This is fairly traditional small-government, free-market conservative talk -- or would be, if it weren't framed as a "concept," like those used in consulting.

Which makes it seem at first a curious way to describe why one is running for president of the United States and leader of the free world. But it turns out to be a perfect encapsulation of the Romney campaign.

Mr. Romney spent a decade as a consultant, and later ran a private equity concern that grew out of that. For most of his adult life, then, Mr. Romney has been figuring out how to run businesses better. It is not much of a stretch to say that he views the federal government as just one more candidate for a data-driven makeover.

In fact, it may not be a stretch at all. When asked for details about how he would reduce the size of government if elected, he mentions two things: The organizational chart of the executive branch, and consultants. "There's no corporation in America that would have a CEO, no COO, just a CEO, with 30 direct reports."

Running a government organized like this is, he explains, impossible. "So I would probably have super-cabinet secretaries, or at least some structure that McKinsey would guide me to put in place." He seems to catch a note of surprise in his audience, but he presses on: "I'm not kidding, I probably would bring in McKinsey. . . . I would consult with the best and the brightest minds, whether it's McKinsey, Bain, BCG or Jack Welch."

This is not a new idea. The New Democrats too became enamored of the idea of "reinventing government," and Al Gore extolled the potential to making government work more like business as vice president. Except in that case, the larger goal was to show that government need not be sclerotic, bloated and inefficient. Mr. Romney seems to view it more as a turnaround project -- trim the fat, reduce expenditure and shrink the organization.

Mr. Romney's data-driven world-view, however, really stands out when he starts talking foreign policy. In a debate last month, he responded to a question about the president's legal authority to attack Iran by saying, "you sit down with your attorneys" and figure out what authority you have.

But this was not merely a dodge -- if it had been, it would have been a clumsy one at best. It was a glimpse into the workings of Mr. Romney's mind. At his meeting in our offices this week, he was asked how Candidate Romney would respond upon learning that President Bush had launched an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

"I would hope that the president would have outlined a great deal of information," was Mr. Romney's response. "I have very little information, for instance, on: How many nuclear facilities are there? Where are they? Can we take them out? Can we not? What is the capacity of the Iranian military to respond? Are our 160,000 troops in Iraq safe, or are they going to get hit?" Coming from someone else, it might sound like evasion.

But given Mr. Romney's habits of mind, it sounded, instead, perfectly natural. He continued: "It's such a wide array of information I'd need to know whether something is a good idea or a bad idea. . . . So it depends."

He then proceeded to outline examples of good and bad scenarios for attacking before coming around, at last, to what passes for a traditional political assessment of the situation, to wit: He thinks sanctions could still work if we can get other nations on board, and if we can pressure Iran diplomatically and economically, "then I think we have a good shot of getting Iran to behave more responsibly."

The charge that Mr. Romney lacks "authenticity" emerges from the fact that he has flip-flopped over the years, especially on social issues. He famously tried to run to the left of Ted Kennedy on some of those issues in his unsuccessful 1994 Senate race. At that time, he also expressly disavowed being a "Reagan-Bush" Republican.

These days, of course, Mr. Romney is right with "the base" on abortion, same-sex marriage and the whole panoply of "social" issues, which has led to suspicions that Mr. Romney, the businessman, is simply tailoring the product, himself, to the customer -- then, the Massachusetts electorate, and now, the national Republican Party.

The impression he gives in person is not, however, that of a salesman tailoring his message to his audience. It is, instead, precisely the person he described in the opening moments of our meeting: A man who goes first to the data, who refers to what some would call their "core beliefs" as "concepts."

At any rate, his response to a question about his former disdain for "Reagan-Bush" is consistent with that version of the man. "Reagan gets a lot smarter the older I get," he allows. He then explains what bothered him then: "I was concerned about what seemed to be looming deficits and inability to rein in spending in those days. And as time has gone on, I've recognized that he was brilliant and did the right thing for our economy. And so I may not have been entirely in sync with Reagan-Bush back at the time, but as time has gone on, I think what they proposed was smarter and smarter."

Framed in that way, what was a flip-flop becomes an openness to reconsider former positions. That may not do much to mollify those who worry about his ideological reliability -- he's changed his views before, so what's to stop him from changing them again? But it is a kind of Romneyian consistency -- belief in what works, belief in praxis over abstract theory or ideology.

This frame of mind seems to make politics both a befuddlement and a great challenge for the businessman in Mr. Romney. "My wife says," he explains, "that watching Washington is like watching two guys in a canoe on a fast-moving river headed to a waterfall and they're not paddling, they're just arguing. As they get closer to the waterfall, they'll finally start to paddle."

That's characteristically optimistic. But in business, most of the time, everyone agrees on the goal, or which way the waterfall is. The goal is profits at a minimum, and ideally growth too. In politics, the two men in the canoe are probably arguing because they can't agree which way to paddle. Mr. Romney encountered this while governor of Massachusetts, as he acknowledges when describing how he vetoed certain elements of the state's health-care reform law, only to have his vetoes overridden.

And then there is the fact that, in his words, "government is almost by necessity inefficient, inflexible, duplicative, wasteful, expensive and burdensome." And yet he speaks hopefully of whittling down the "342 economic-development programs in this country," the 13 teenage [pregnancy] prevention programs" and the like.

It probably takes a consultant to believe that we have 342 economic-development programs because no one ever hired a consultant to explain that maybe one, or five, or none, would do. And even Mr. Romney is not that naive. There is even something attractive about a politician who is driven by the facts of the case; an excess of ideology is never appealing, and in the worst cases leads to fanaticism of the ugliest sort.

The question for the electorate is whether Mitt Romney is the man of the hour. But when asked whether his "nuts-and-bolts" approach can possibly succeed in an ideological, divided age, he returns to the nuts and bolts.

"I think I'm the only guy who can win the general election," he explains. "That may seem strange, but I think it's going to take someone from outside Washington to win. I think it's going to take someone who's not a lifelong politician to win. . . ." Then he goes tactical: "Of course we have to win Florida. And I think almost all of the leading contenders could win Florida with the right running mate and the right policies and the right effort.

"But we also have to win Michigan or Ohio. Winning both would be critical. I don't see how you get there without winning Michigan or Ohio. And I can win Michigan, and I may be able to win Ohio too. . ."

At this point, Mr. Romney may have started to worry that it sounded like he was bragging, because he abruptly shifted to a strange form of self-deprecation: "I can win those states -- and by the way, not because of me, but because of my dad," he says. George Romney was governor of Michigan in the 1960s. "My dad's reputation is better than mine will ever be in Michigan. His reputation for integrity and can-do accomplishment is what I think helps me win Michigan. And that's what it takes to win the White House."