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The Counter-Intuition Of Mitt Romney

Since I know everyone is as fixated on trying to understand Mitt Romney as I am, I highly recommend Louis Menand’s piece in the latest New Yorker. It's ostensibly a review of The Real Romney, the new biography by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, but basically another entry in the burgeoning “Just who the heck is this guy” genre. Menand tries to answer a question that I took on in my own review of the biography a few weeks ago—why is Romney such a lousy and unnatural candidate on the campaign trail? I argued that Romney’s political prospects were hurt by his having followed his father’s advice to make a big pile of money before running for office; as I saw it, this led Romney, who already suffered from silverspoon-itis, into the even more rarefied world of Bain Capital, leaving him with the cluelessness he exhibits daily on the trail.

Menand takes this a step further by arguing that the specific line of money-making Romney followed may have hampered him by leading him to learn to suppress the very instincts and intuitions that make for successful politicians. The key period, Menand argues, was not Romney’s 15 years at Bain Capital but his earlier nine years as a management consultant at Bain & Company and the Boston Consulting Group: 

There are several strains running through the history of management theory, and which paradigms are dominant, and at which consulting firms, depends on the economic times and the nature of the competition. At B.C.G. and Bain & Company between 1975 and 1984, data crunching seems to have been the main engine of analysis. Virtually everyone agrees that Romney was extremely good at this, and he operates his political campaigns in the same way.

“He’s not a very notional leader,” Romney’s campaign spokesman told an Iowa newspaper in 2007. “He is more interested in data, and what the data mean.” But it’s not just that Romney doesn’t have good political instincts. It’s that he was trained to distrust instinct altogether. In management consulting, gut feelings are what you work hard to take out of the equation. That’s the justification for all that painstaking analysis: the consultant who crunches a mountain of numbers to come up with an idea that the C.E.O. already has will not get far. It’s the counterintuitiveness of the advice that justifies the fee.
An analogy might be to the statistical revolution in baseball—the “moneyball” approach. Management theory replaces faith in gut feelings and hands-on know-how—a belief in clutch hitters in baseball or brand loyalty in business—with faith in the power of conceptually driven data analysis. But the baseball stats—the on-base percentage, wins above replacement, and all those other high-concept figures—are pointless if they simply verify empirically what the old-timers already intuit by chewing on their chaw. The whole point is to prove the old-timers wrong.
Whatever the case with sports might be, retail politics does depend a good deal on instinct. History doesn’t happen in six-week segments, and sometimes—most of the time—there isn’t much reliable data around to crunch. Romney likes to cite cases when, as governor, he used analyses produced by consulting groups to address problems in areas like public education, and he has said that if he is President he will “probably” hire McKinsey, or some other consulting firm, to do an efficiency analysis of the federal government. There’s nothing radical about this. Obama has an efficiency expert from management consulting working for him; George W. Bush, who graduated from Harvard Business School a year after Romney, surrounded himself with management consultants in the White House. Herbert Hoover applied the “scientific management” techniques of Frederick Taylor to government bureaucracy. The issue is knowing how far this approach can take you in governance. (emphasis mine)

I find this quite intriguing. One could counter with a chicken and the egg argument of sorts—odds are, Romney was not all intuitive-minded even before he went into consulting, and may not have been the greatest candidate regardless of how he had spent his formative years. Still, the years of consulting surely did not help matters. Romney’s lack of intuitiveness manifests itself in many ways, but one of the clearest examples is the clumsiness of his pandering. All politicians try to tailor their pitch to the audience before them, to establish some sort of knowing connection, but the ones with good intuition are able to do so without making everyone in the room cringe. So we have Romney praising “cheesy grits” in the Deep South, or telling a working-class audience that he, too, feared getting a pink-slip, or telling a Chamber of Commerce audience that he likes being able to fire people who provide lousy services. It’s pandering in paint-by-numbers fashion, with no nuance, no touch, no intuition.

But I differ with Menand on another point. He views Romney as a reincarnation of his father’s form of moderate Republican—the “white shoe Wall Street establishment of fifty years ago,” men like Nelson Rockefeller, Prescott Bush and William Scranton who were “permissive on social issues and at ease with big government, yet remained ever faithful to the gods of business and finance. Their principles were abstract but broad-minded: tolerance, free trade, and a belief in something called the American Way. Their personal tastes were conventional. They were surprisingly allergic to indecorum, and disinclined to question the status quo. But they were not small-town or provincial; they were Wall Streeters, not Main Streeters. Their vista was international. They were private-sector types who answered the call to public service.”

Now, there’s no question that if you scratch through Romney’s current conservative patina long enough, you’ll find a political profile that looks a lot like George Romney’s. But I would argue that Romney fils differs from Romney pere precisely because Mitt is a “Wall Street” Republican of a sort that George was not. George made his mark in auto manufacturing, which meant having responsibility over thousands of employees, having a working relationship with unions, and, well, making things. Whereas Mitt followed his dad’s advice to make money in the “real economy” by going into a line of work that was decidedly less real—slicing and dicing companies from an office in Boston, with far less interaction with actual workers, and for far, far greater financial gain than his father ever enjoyed. In my review, I quoted a line of Mitt’s that seems truer than its speaker even realized: “Work was never just a way to make a buck to my dad. There was a calling and purpose to it. It was about making life better for people.” Applying the same judgment to Mitt’s career seems harder to do—counter-intuitive, you might even say.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis