Michael Lewis, who wrote the book Moneyball — recently turned into a blockbuster movie — is a master of using a compelling human story to show how we truly value each other. The premise: Underdog major-league general manager Billy Beane, eternally damned to not field a championship team because he’s playing in a small market, bucks conventional wisdom by drafting a team based on statistical analysis of human capital — i.e., the players. For Beane, the roster becomes an equation to be solved.
A few years ago, Lewis wrote another book, about the 1996 presidential election, called Losers. In a way, it was his political version of Moneyball. It’s a story about another quixotic quest, which asks us: What value system are we using to judge our political candidates?
Lewis became intrigued with the bid of Morry Taylor, a Michigan tire magnate who sold $15 million worth of his company’s stock to run for president after an employee told him no one represented the concerns of working men and women. Lewis felt that Taylor embodied the straight-talking, commonsense, non-politician leader Americans always say they want to elect as president. “We have a fantasy, and it is profitably exploited by Hollywood, that if only an honest and genuinely free man with a heart of gold runs for president, everything in the world would be put aright,” Lewis wrote of Taylor’s short-lived candidacy. “Well, now we know what happens . . . he spends $6.5 million and gets seven thousand votes.”
Last week, I interviewed Taylor (who wrote a book called Kill All the Lawyers and Other Ways to Fix Government after his failed bid, which gives you a sense of the straight talk he was bringing to the ‘96 campaign) to get his take on the 2012 presidential election.
“Life is all kind of backwards,” Taylor told me 15 years after his foray into the highest level of politics and public scrutiny. “I think I could have run and beat Obama for U.S. senator.” (After his presidential bid, Taylor promised his wife he would never again seek political office.) He’s bearish on Obama’s reelection prospects. “If [Obama] keeps on the path he’s going . . . I think you could put a dog in and a dog would win. I feel sorry for him. He’s surrounded by all of these screaming liberals.”
How does he evaluate the current crop of Republican contenders — and how does he think voters will decide on their value?
Though Taylor’s candidacy foreshadowed that of Herman Cain, he says no candidate reminds him of himself. He’s narrowed the contest to Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. Of all the candidates, Mitt is “probably intellectually the smartest,” but he wonders if Mitt, who toured Taylor’s factory in Des Moines, can connect with working men and women. “He’s got an unbelievable entourage,” explained Taylor, who told me he advised Romney to come back to his factory with a film crew (minus the entourage) and spend a day on the line making tires (and a campaign ad). “You’re going to get black underneath your fingernails, you’re going to get dirty all over the place, you’re going to sweat like a hog,” Taylor told Romney, who has not yet taken him up on the offer. Taylor also believes Romney’s religion may be a liability in the South. “You can’t ask for anybody with higher morals than he probably has,” Taylor told me, but in “the Southern states, there’s a lot of religious people on the Republican side who do not look at ‘Mormon’ as a real religion.”
Taylor thinks Perry does understand working men and women. “He is a politician, but I think his heart and his brain function more that the less government you have, the better off you are.” He thinks Perry tells the truth and gets beat up for it, pointing to his characterization of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme, which Taylor thinks is fundamentally correct. “What he really means is that if people put money in and they get a lot more back out, that it never can really succeed,” Taylor explained. “There’s no lockbox like Al Gore said. There’s no money there.” It was an example of how the “straight talk” that we supposedly want can backfire — Perry was hammered in the media for his comments, and his poll numbers dipped.
In the 2012 Republican field, perhaps it’s a duel of two candidates whose assets are their very liabilities. Perry’s blunt talk could implode his candidacy at a moment’s notice, as his previous statements have already threatened to do. Romney’s polished, poll-tested platform might fail to connect with voters in critical early battles — but despite our alleged dislike of smooth-talking pols, Romney remains the front-runner. The ultimate decision on how we value our candidates will be made in the upcoming primaries — and the campaign that wins will have figured out the equation. The others will join this year’s crop of losers.
— Elise Jordan is a New York–based writer and commentator. She served as a director for communications in the National Security Council in 2008–09 and was a speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.