The CEO Candidate

How Mitt Romney’s corporate success explains his campaign—and his flip-flops.

Mitt Romney

For Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the transition from moderate, gay-friendly, abortion-tolerating Massachusetts governor to a certified social conservative isn’t going smoothly. YouTube and Google have exposed Romney’s shifting policy positions and relatively recent history of liberal behavior. In 1992, he voted for Democrat Paul Tsongas in the presidential primary. In a 1994 debate, he promised to be better on gay rights than Ted Kennedy and spoke movingly about why abortion should be safe and legal. Today? He’s hyperpartisan, pro-life, and hostile to gay marriage. Last year, he worked with Democrats to enact universal health care in Massachusetts. Today, his campaign Web site’s health-care page doesn’t even mention it.

Romney’s flip-flops have been aggravated by his clumsy responses. Disavowing his remarks in the 1994 Kennedy debate, he said: “Of course, I was wrong on some issues back then. I think most of us learn with experience.” Yes, as an unformed man of 47, this CEO, father, and multimillionaire was in the thrall of foolish, immature ideas.

It’s easy to conclude that Romney lacks core principles and will say or do anything to get elected. But I think there’s something deeper at work. Romney’s behavior—and the fact that he doesn’t think his obvious flip-flopping should arouse suspicions—suggests that he may be the first real CEO/MBA candidate. Sure, President George W. Bush is the first president to have an MBA, and he made noises about running the country like a company. (Insert Enron joke here.) But in contrast to Bush, Romney was a real businessman before getting into politics. The Harvard MBA started at Bain & Company as a management consultant in 1978, founded BainCapital, a wildly successful venture-capital firm, and restructured the Salt Lake City Olympics effort. Romney would easily win a private poll among Republican-leaning executives—he’s their kind of guy, socially and financially. Ebay CEO Meg Whitman is a big supporter. And smart establishment economists such as Greg Mankiw of Harvard, Columbia Business School Dean Glenn Hubbard, and John Cogan of Stanford, all of whom provided critical intellectual support for President Bush, have signed on.

So, how are Romney’s flip-flops and business success connected? People suspect, perhaps correctly, that Romney really doesn’t believe all the things he’s saying. His wife, Anne, has multiple sclerosis, yet he’s opposed to embryonic stem-cell research. If an MS treatment derived from embryonic stem cells were to be developed overseas, it’s a pretty sure bet that Romney would use his influence and funds to get that treatment for his spouse.

But such hypocrisy, which turns off voters, is something like a job requirement for CEOs. In the executive suite, abandoning deeply held attitudes and reversing positions are job requirements. How often have you seen a CEO proclaim that a struggling unit is not for sale, only to put it on the block a few months later? A CEO will praise a product to the skies one day and then cancel it the next. He’ll boast, sincerely, that his company is No. 1 in the industry and then, when he quits the next day to run a rival, claim that the new firm is tops. CEOs take their cues from Mike Damone of Fast Times at Ridgemont High: “Act like wherever you are, that’s the place to be.”

These business flips are fine, because in the corporate world, people don’t confuse advocacy of a company’s strategy or products and services with personal honor or integrity. Nobody expects Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott to wear suits made at Wal-Mart, or Sears Chairman Eddie Lampert to furnish his homes with appliances from Sears, or for the gazillionaires behind Triarc to eat lunch at Arby’s.

Good CEOs don’t simply stake out public positions and stick to them for 20 years. They devise new business strategies and business plans to cope with changing market conditions. Energy-company executives who are suddenly eager to do something about global warming aren’t seen as hypocrites, they’re seen as shrewd operators. If the world changes, you don’t simply do and say the same thing. You bring in Bain & Company, commission a study, announce a restructuring, start manufacturing in China.

It is clear that Romney approaches politics not as a crusade but as a business case study. He doesn’t run in elections, he competes in markets. In 1994, the former management consultant knew his market. Running against icon Ted Kennedy in an intensely Democratic state, Romney knew there was no percentage in running as a right-wing alternative. So, he tried to get to Kennedy’s left on women’s and gay issues, and asserted he wasn’t even a Republican in the 1980s.

Like a good management consultant, Romney has also been a relentless bench-marker—taking proven tactics and adapting them to present-day circumstances. When he ran for governor in 2002, he followed the playbook of William Weld, who showed that the way to get elected as a Republican in a hyperpartisan, wealthy state like Massachusetts was to run as a likeable, moderate post-partisan.

Today, Romney correctly recognizes that what is appropriate for one market (Massachusetts voters) clearly is not appropriate for another market (Republican-primary voters). And so he has borrowed the tactics of President Bush, addressing the market much as Bush did in 2000, as a tax-cutting, pro-business, pro-life, anti-gay-marriage, gun-toting, compassionate conservative who can also hold hands with African-Americans.

It’s not surprising that Romney has fled from his public record and is running to the right. What’s surprising is that the man who has usually been so competent is proving to be rather poor at execution, and timing. He’s moving hard right at a time when the national mood seems to be swinging in the opposite direction. Witness his graceless attacks on liberals, sudden interest in guns, James Inhofe-like soundings on global warming. They sound all wrong and unconvincing, like a consumer-products company reinventing itself as a dot-com—in the summer of 2000. Meanwhile, his focus on a narrow (and suspicious) conservative niche is likely to inhibit his ability to appeal to a mass market. After all, the latest poll from Quinnipiac College has him charting at 7 percent.