The Out-of-Touch, Gaffe-Prone, Successful Candidacy of Alan Mulally

by Henry Payne

On the same day (September 18) Mitt Romney was under media fire (“Will Mitt Romney’s 47 percent remark sink his campaign?” hoped the front page of the Detroit Free Press) due to a gaffe allegedly revealing him as out of touch with America, Ford CEO Alan Mulally was also besieged by media asking whether anyone could possibly succeed the successful Ford chief. “I’m not going to retire anytime soon,” Mulally reassured his panting press.

The jarring contrast in how the resumes of executives Mitt Romney and Alan Mulally have been judged is an illustration in how disconnected presidential media politics has become from the goal of electing a qualified candidate. Had Ford CEO-candidate Mulally been judged by presidential media standards, he never would have made it.

Start with the Gaffe Police.

When he was recruited by Ford Chairman Bill Ford to run the iconic, $130 billion company, Mulally was the proud owner of a Lexus LS430 which he called the “finest car in the world.” Outrageous! Disqualifying! the political press would have screamed. “Will Alan Mulally’s Lexus sink his campaign?”

In fact, Mulally’s knowledge of the high bar Ford’s competition had set would be an important guide as the Boeing airplane executive transitioned to his new world of automotive manufacturing.

What? An anti-union Seattle airplane executive running a UAW Detroit car company? Outrageous! He’s the enemy of the working man! the political press might have screamed of the commercial airline executive who presided over a bitter 2005 machinists strike. “Alan Mulally once called union workers ‘extreme’!”

Mulally’s toughness in fighting for industry efficiencies was just the ticket for a Ford Motor Company that had grown fat from labor costs and excess brands. He has been efficient — “heartless” the political press would say — in trimming Ford fat by offloading the Land Rover and Jaguar divisions to Tata. (Shipping jobs overseas!) Mulally’s 2006 cost-cutting led almost immediately to Ford’s first profitable quarter in two years. Similarly, the tools Romney would bring from the private sector to government are prerequisites for tackling the enormous fiscal challenges an out-of-control federal Leviathan presents.

And then there were those Boeing tax returns.

“So far this year, Mulally has received $11.7 million in bonuses tied to Boeing’s stock price,” wrote the Seattle Times in 2006. “Those payments come on top of $7.6 million in stock-incentive bonuses he received last year and $2.9 million in 2004.” Oh, those awful, undertaxed capital gains. He only paid half what Detroit laborers paid on their income! the political press would have screamed. “Is Mulally out of touch with average Americans?”

Pointless class warfare no different than that aimed at Romney. The bottom line on the Mulally-Romney tax forms is that both these men know how to grow companies. Wouldn’t you want that in a CEO for Ford? As a CEO for the federal government?

By 2009, Mulally — despite these “disqualifications” — had stabilized Ford such that it was the only Detroit manufacturer not to go bankrupt. He had also honked off conservatives with his green politics and uncommitted views on federal subsidies. Sounds a lot like a businessman. “Alan was the right choice, and it gets more right every day,” crowed Chairman Ford.

Four years after taking the helm of Ford, the company was profitable, its rating restored to investment grade, and Mulally was named 2011 CEO of the Year by Chief Executive magazine. In contrast, Barack Obama — a man utterly unqualified based on his management experience to run a $2 trillion enterprise — is still blaming his predecessor, George W. Bush, for U.S. fiscal problems.

If Alan Mulally tried the blame game four years in, he would be fired. But Mulally works in the real world. The political world looks like a different planet. No wonder America’s hurting.

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