My First Things column this week is about how right-leaning businessmen like Mitt Romney and David Perdue need a middle-class agenda even more than other kinds of candidates.
One thing I don’t think I got across is that businessman candidates aren’t, in and of themselves, worse or better than other kinds of candidates. Professional politicians have one set of distinctive weaknesses, as do legacy pols. Right-leaning businessmen like Romney and Perdue face the suspicion that they neither understand nor are interested in the priorities of voters further down the earnings scale.
The difference is that the better professional and legacy pols are aware of, and try to address their weaknesses. Professional politicians deploy a lot of energy trying to explain about how they are for the public interest rather than their own personal ambition. Legacy politicians try to build up something of a personal resume (by managing baseball teams or points of light foundations or whatever) so as to blunt the charge that they are just living of a famous name.
Right-leaning Republican business executives face a weird dichotomy. Their history of business success (which might includes layoffs, failed business ventures, and outsourcing) isn’t much of a drag among the Republican primary electorate. Non-rent seeking businessman are what makes America great. But the general election electorate is skeptical that this background in making money is necessarily good preparation for representing the public interest. The candidate’s experience with the nominating electorate does not help them connect with persudables who don’t necessarily trust a business executive any more than someone who has been in elective office since their mid-twenties (though the public might will have different concerns about each candidate).
One temptation (which the Romney campaign gave into) is to answer questions the public isn’t asking. In his 2012 convention speech, Romney tried to “humanize” himself by talking about the relationship between his mother and father. It made for some affecting moments (at least I think so), but it didn’t do him any good because nobody was skeptical of Romney on the grounds that Mitt didn’t appreciate his parents.
The concerns about right-leaning business executives are about whether the business executive will represent the interests of the voters rather than the interests of the right-leaning rich. The voters already know that the business executive candidate is smart and organized. So they need to put those smarts and that organization in the service of the middle-class. If you are so much smarter and more efficient than your professional politician opponent, then you should be able to come up with and explain your more free market program that expands coverage while costing the government less money.