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The competence candidate

Can Mitt Romney make competence sell?

SHOULD HE RUN FOR PRESIDENT, Mitt Romney will have several things going for him. He is telegenic and articulate. He is a Republican who managed to get elected in an overwhelmingly Democratic state. And in Massachusetts's sweeping new healthcare plan he has at least one legislative achievement of note. But as a moderate one-term governor unknown in many parts of the country, he stands out from the pack of Republican hopefuls not due to a particular ideological position so much as a record as a manager and turnaround artist. Romney, in other words, would be running largely on competence.

And not for the first time. At the end of ``Turnaround," Romney's memoir of his stewardship of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games, there is an epilogue that, in five and a half brisk pages, describes how Romney later that year campaigned for and won the governorship of Massachusetts. As he writes, ``the campaign was a good deal like a turnaround."

An enormously successful venture capitalist, Romney had made a career out of resuscitating underperforming companies. In the early 1990s he had even returned to a struggling Bain & Co.-the consulting firm where he had gotten his start-to serve as CEO and help put it back on sound financial footing. And under his leadership, the Salt Lake City Olympics broke free from the blot of the bribery scandal that had forced out Romney's predecessor. Today, the Games are remembered as both a commercial success and a rallying point for post-9/11 American patriotism.

Running for governor, in Romney's telling, was simply a way of turning around not only the beleaguered Massachusetts Republican Party, but Massachusetts itself, a state, in his words, that ``had been burdened too long by waste, abuse, inefficiency, and patronage."

And in the waning months of his one-term governorship, the fatal Big Dig collapse has given Romney another opportunity to demonstrate his competence as a manager. True to form, he swiftly took control of the repair work, secured the resignation of Turnpike

Authority chairman Matthew Amorello, and gave a series of press conferences in which he showed off an easy fluency with the details of the tunnels' construction.

Now would seem to be the right time for a Republican competence candidate. This spring the Pew Research Center reported that ``incompetent" had replaced ``honest" as the word people most often attach to President Bush. Democrats have made ``dangerous incompetence" a key talking point of their campaign to take back Congress-invoking the specter of the continuing bloodshed in Iraq and what they characterize as the administration's bungled response to Hurricane Katrina.

In this context, Romney's managerial skills have a special appeal. As one Republican strategist close to Romney put it, ``Mitt is the cerebral fix-it guy, the level head, the big brain who's cool in a crisis."

``I have a theory that people try to vote for what they think they didn't get last time," the strategist continued. ``What they think they didn't get last time was competence."

If history is any guide, though, Romney might not want to lean too heavily on competence as a selling point. As intuitively appealing as the idea of an even-handed leader-manager may be, running on such a platform has rarely been a recipe for presidential success. No campaign can be reduced to one issue or strategy, and historical context makes any comparison inexact. Still, one generalization several leading historians are willing to make is that it's ideologues and political operators rather than managers who end up in the White House-and who, once there, tend to leave the more lasting legacies.

``Obviously you don't want someone who can't balance his checkbook," says David M. Kennedy, a Stanford University historian. ``But the people we remember as truly effective presidents, it's not primarily for their administrative competency. There's something else, a dimension X. Mere administrative competence is surely not sufficient, and it may not even be necessary."


omney, of course, wouldn't be the first presidential candidate from Massachusetts to run on competence. In 1988 Michael Dukakis built his campaign around his reputation as a gifted administrator-he had presided over the boom years of the ``Massachusetts Miracle"-and, in accepting the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, famously proclaimed that the campaign would be about ``competence, not ideology." His opponent, George H. W. Bush, proved him wrong, trouncing Dukakis by running a campaign that painted the Massachusetts governor as an unreconstructed liberal who was soft on crime, insufficiently patriotic, hostile to religion, and silly-looking in a tank.

Today Dukakis insists that his famous unofficial slogan was taken out of context and transformed into ``some kind of dry management treatise."

``Obviously I was singularly unsuccessful in making my point in the campaign," he says, ``but competence was and is a huge issue, both nationally and at the state level around here." As Dukakis sees it, the Romney administration's record of incompetence on Beacon Hill is as fat a target as the Bush administration's.

But according to Alan Brinkley, a historian and the provost of Columbia University, competence has tended to have much more resonance in lower-level races. ``It's a more popular qualification at lower levels, in campaigns for mayors, governors, school superintendents."

Recent decades have seen the nation's governor's mansions emerge as a sort of farm team for the White House, producing four out of the last five presidents. That makes a certain sense, as governors, like presidents, are executives, but the difference between the two jobs is not merely one of scale. As Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin puts it, ``When people are voting for governors, they are in a sense electing the CEO of their state," someone whose job is to manage the government. ``There are a lot of very uncharismatic guys elected governor," he says, mentioning Iowa's Tom Vilsack and former Virginia governor (and Democratic presidential hopeful) Mark Warner. ``Romney," he adds, ``isn't one of them."

The president, on the other hand, is more than a manager. The Constitution makes the president both head of government (like a prime minister) and head of state (like a king). As Kazin puts it, ``the president is powerful both as a symbol and as an actual executive."

``People vote much more for a bundle of character traits and how they like someone on television than who they think will solve their problems. After all, everyone has different problems," Kazin adds. Brinkley points to Ronald Reagan, who attracted the votes of millions of Democrats and remains a hero to Republicans, and was ``never one for whom competence was the issue."

Even when they win, competence candidates often have trouble governing. The presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin points to the example of William H. Taft, who was presented by the Republican Party of his day as a steward of Theodore Roosevelt's legacy. ``But the public," she says, ``didn't attach to him in the same way" it did to the erratic but galvanizing Roosevelt.

In general, says Bruce Schulman, a historian at Boston University, ``Those presidencies don't work well when they are true to their campaign mottos. Partly what presidential leadership is about is convincing large bodies of people to move in a certain direction, and managerial-style leaders have a harder time doing that." Schulman, author of a recent history of the 1970s, points to Jimmy Carter as a president plagued by a sort of ``engineer-manager" mind-set. ``If you look at every problem individually and analyze it on the merits, that makes for a good professor, but it makes for lousy leadership."

Another example that several historians cite is Herbert Hoover. Trained as an engineer, Hoover had early in life earned a reputation as a brilliant administrator. He amassed a considerable fortune as a mining executive then devoted himself to public service, earning universal acclaim for his running of the US Food Administration during World War I (he managed to avoid rationing), his leadership of a massive relief effort for the Belgians under German occupation and, after the war, his coordinating role in the European reconstruction effort. The ``Great Engineer" ably served two presidents as secretary of commerce, and both the Democratic and Republican parties wooed him to be their nominee. Franklin D. Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy, proclaimed him ``a wonder."

Yet today Hoover's presidency is remembered as a disaster. The challenge that undid him, of course, was the Great Depression, one of the greatest crises the country had ever faced. Still, it was Hoover's successor, Roosevelt, whose skills were famously political rather than administrative, who proved far better able to guide the country through those years.

Romney is an imperfect fit into this tradition. Unlike Dukakis, for example, his resume was burnished mostly in the private sector, and he uses that as an implicit critique of the sort of public sector manager Dukakis represents. In 2002, Romney ran as a no-nonsense businessmen who would be an antidote to the cronyism of Beacon Hill pols. These days, as he visits primary states like New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Iowa, he's as likely to focus on his record as governor, boasting about his health plan and his handling of the Big Dig collapse, but his introducers never fail to mention his credentials as an entrepreneur.

This is not necessarily new. Romney's father George, after all, won the Michigan governorship on the strength of his having turned around the American Motors Corp. But Bruce Schulman, for one, sees private sector credentials mattering more than they once did. Over the past two decades, he argues, people have increasingly begun to look to entrepreneurs rather than politicians as the world's problem-solvers. ``You have people like Bill Gates saying entrepreneurs are now the ones that are going to solve social and cultural problems, who are even going to perfect democracy," he argues. And the fact that the Democrat Mark Warner is running in part on the strength of his founding of the telecommunications firm Nextel underlines the bipartisan nature of the shift.

Of course, Romney of late has been sounding less like an evenhanded manager than a budding ideologue, emphasizing in a CSPAN interview that his values are ``on the same page" as those of the religious right and calling for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Here in Massachusetts, these sorts of comments invite suspicions that Romney is pandering to the conservative Republicans who matter so much in presidential primaries. He might, on the other hand, simply be expressing his actual views. Regardless, he can be comforted by the knowledge that voters tend to reward candidates who talk about their beliefs more than those who talk about their abilities.

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail

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