There is a very simple explanation for why people who have displayed some success in business rarely make it to the big time in politics. The skill sets for the two callings don’t match very well.
Many Republicans like to talk about how they will take real world business experience and apply it to government, but they rarely get the chance because running a campaign and governing require dramatically different talents than running a meeting of the board of directors and hitting quarterly financial targets.
Politics at some level is about opening up and acting like, if not actually being, a real person. Orders issued from the business C-suite about sales targets and monthly financials give way to nuance and persuasion of the public arena. Politics often involves ambiguous and even contradictory objectives. Business rarely involves either. A candidate is in the fish bowl with issues like character and personality constantly under review. A CEO answers quietly to a board and if the CEO desires he or she can avoid the press and the public at will. The mindset and the skillset for the two occupations are very different as President Mitt Romney can tell you.
Still the myth of the business leader turned president persists.
Briefly in 1924, a period of rapid economic expansion, the most famous business leader in the country seemed poised to capture the White House. Henry Ford, it was widely believed, could do for the federal government what he had done for Detroit. Calvin Coolidge, an accidental president, was in the White House due to the death of Warren Harding. The colorless Coolidge seemed little match for the man from Dearborn who had not exactly invented the assembly line but had been wildly successful in adapting it to modern manufacturing. The Model T Ford had helped revolutionize transportation and was affordable enough that owning a car was within nearly everyone’s reach.
Even the great humorist Will Rogers “nominated” Ford for president saying there was no reason not to put a Ford in the White House since they were everywhere else in the country.
The Ford for President boomlet blossomed quickly and collapsed just as fast when the automobile magnate proved to have no affinity for the “soft” talents of meeting real people and explaining where he stood on the issues. Like many people who are successful in business and get to the top either by their own ambition or by being chosen, Ford couldn’t imagine actually trying to convince people to vote for him. He never did really run, wanting to be appointed instead of elected.
Despite the obvious advantage of great name recognition Ford also had as historian Joseph Kip Kosek has written, serious liabilities. Like an earlier version of Donald Trump, Ford had a “weakness for conspiracy theories,” Kosek notes. “Before The Donald’s perplexing sympathy for the birthers was Ford’s perplexing suspicion of the Jews. In his magazine, the auto magnate disseminated a variety of anti-Semitic writings, including the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Indeed, Ford was the only American praised by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf. Being an anti-Semite did not necessarily disqualify one from high office during this period of resurgent nativism, but Ford’s enthusiasm along these lines would undoubtedly have been an embarrassment.”
Think of the truly great American presidents – Washington, a farmer and military leader; Lincoln, a lawyer; and Franklin Roosevelt, another lawyer with substantial family wealth – and you find almost no real “business” experience.
The same can be said for other “great” or “near great” presidents – Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Dwight Eisenhower, James Madison and Andrew Jackson. Harry Truman failed as a haberdasher. Ronald Reagan’s business experience consisted of serving as a paid spokesman for General Electric. John Kennedy, a critic might say, never worked a real day in his life.
In presidential elections since the Civil War only one major party candidate – Republican Wendell Willkie in 1940 – was nominated without prior political experience and on the basis of his business resume. Willkie lost.
Two modern presidents with business experience, Herbert Hoover, the mining engineer and George W. Bush, owner of a baseball team are ranked by many historians as among the worst American presidents. Both men had prior political experience as did Romney – a business guy with a degree from the Harvard Business School who struggled mightily to connect with real people.
By contrast, as the New York Times’ Tim Egan pointed out back in 2012, “The biggest job creator of modern times, Bill Clinton, wouldn’t know a spreadsheet from a cooked derivative. His business experience was nil, but he had governing smarts, and his instincts were usually right. Under Clinton’s watch, the United States added 23 million new jobs — this after he raised “job-killing” taxes on the rich.”
Which brings us to Trump and a couple of predictions. Trump is clearly a clown, but also a brilliantly cynical self-promoter. He is the combed over personification of the old line that any PR is good PR as long as they spell your name right. The New York Daily News covered both bases with its front page on Trump’s bizarre announcement of candidacy, which the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank said, “had the feel of a lonely bar patron’s monologue to the captive saloon keeper.”
Here’s the first prediction: Trump will suck a good deal of the media air out of the Republican pre-primary primary over the next few weeks. His crazy antics will generate laughs, puzzlement and lots of Facebook traffic. The comic relief will be briefly enjoyable, but won’t do the GOP prospects any good in the long run particularly if he shows up at one of the early debates. Trump may just reinforce the notion that the modern Republican Party isn’t the party of Reagan or Eisenhower, but rather the party of out-of-touch vanity candidates – think Herman Cain – who play to the worst and narrowest instincts of the Tea Party crowd.
Ultimately, The Donald will not really run. He’ll stay in the race long enough to stroke his enormous ego and pump the ratings of a future television show. A key requirement for a real presidential candidate is that they file a personal financial disclosure statement, something Trump will never do. He can wave around a sheet of paper claiming his net worth to be something close to $9 billion, which is highly doubtful, but Trump will never open up his secretive and shaky financial house of cards to real scrutiny. That would be the kind of attention Trump would avoid like a stiff breeze (that would muss his locks).
Americans rarely, in fact almost never, elect a person with genuine business experience to the highest public office. We like to think we have a personal connections with our presidents and usually select them based on their judgment, likability and life experiences. A little class doesn’t hurt either.
Using that rating system Crazy Donald Trump will be just the latest to prove the truism that perceived success in business is not a winning ticket to the White House; a reality TV show perhaps, but not the Oval Office.