It’s difficult to make sense of the raw numbers coming out of the primaries so far and easy to perhaps draw what will be seen as wrong conclusions in retrospect. In a very good Democratic field, it’s hard to find daylight between the candidates on policy. All want some form of permanent, irrevocable healthcare reform, all want to provide a better, more secure, and more remunerative work environment for Americans, all want to take action on climate change — and we could go on including positions on guns, public education, and more.
The big debate seems to be over implementation. Should we throw out systems that sort of work and replace them with others? Or should we try to fix some that already exist? How do we prioritize what goes first? Does any of this make one liberal/progressive/centrist?
Against this background there are subtle indicators that the voting public picks up on that have almost nothing to do with the issues. They’re more personal and, believe it or not, Donald Trump sends out a very similar vibe to Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg the current Democratic front runners.
I won’t keep you in suspense — in all cases the candidates who are currently leading the field have a good deal of executive experience and it’s something that voters pick up on though they may not identify it as such. How many times have we heard pundits or even ourselves say words to the effect that we need a “businessman” as president to get things done? Businessman is code for the partially formed thought that we want executive experience. People sense it but they often vote for a facsimile of the real thing in part, I guess, because they haven’t articulated the thing they’re seeking in unambiguous detail.
Take a look at the leading contenders, and you’ll find they each have a fair amount of executive experience which colors their messages to the voter. Trump ran a real estate business for years and did a good job of running it into the ground. Real estate is one of the biggest industries in the country, but it’s populated by huge numbers of mom and pop shops selling property, managing it, and building it. But the problem for voters last time around is that being the CEO of a mom and pop real estate firm — even a big one like the Trump empire, especially when run badly — isn’t exactly like running General Motors or Microsoft.
Trump told us he was a great businessman even though the ample evidence pointed in another direction. But we bought it — he was on TV after all, what else is there?
The experience of making decisions for any enterprise every day is enough to train a certain mind set and way of communicating. It’s a very different set of behaviors and skills than trying to be a collaborative legislator and the difference shows. An executive knows that he or she has to deal with an issue or bad things could happen. On the other hand, the legislator is often in a position of trying to find consensus.
For the executive, the decision-making process might take days or weeks and possibly longer but there’s little doubt whose decision it is and the impacts of not making it or doing it badly. People who have been in the decision-making seat are changed by the experience and it’s communicable through body language and projected confidence.
Trump’s experience is far afield from what might be called good decision-making though. He’s lost tons of other people’s money on decisions made more from ego than logic and he’s developed a thick skin for deflecting criticism or blaming others, and he doubles down on a bad idea, something that legislators can’t do and remain accountable. Trump’s executive experience gives him the wherewithal to stand in front of an audience and lie if he has to in order to get his way. You simply can’t do that in government with so many checks and balances without destroying the checks or learning to behave differently.
Here I have to stop and laugh because we all know of Trump’s disinterest in facts or taking in new information. He’s not going to learn or change; he’s going to plow ahead until something breaks catastrophically. Then he’ll blame someone else, preferably a Democrat. Impeachment could have been such a catastrophe, but Trump had already gotten to the point of corrupting the checks and balances.
Ok, what about Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg?
Sanders is running as a Senator but it’s worth keeping front and center that he earned his spurs in government as the mayor of Burlington, VT (1981–1989). The same is true with Mayor Pete whose only government experience is as mayor of South Bend, IN from 2011 until recently.
You might think that mayoral experience is not so significant, but I’d disagree. Mayors have to interact with city councils, a kind of city legislature, and they also have to make serious decisions in real time while also managing an annual budget. The job of mayor is the same as the presidency but in microcosm and it’s a bit closer to reality than either the presidency or running a mom and pop shop with absolutely no checks or balances on outrageous behavior.
If you’re a big city mayor your job might actually be bigger than the governor of a typical state. Ditto for your executive experience. For instance, New York City, which Mike Blumberg ran for three consecutive terms, has a population over 8.6 million people — more than the population of 40 of the 50 states.
A quick shout out to Pete Buttigieg who worked as a consultant at McKinsey before entering public life. McKinsey & Co. are the guys that big industry and governments call in to help sort through particularly knotty problems that can affect an organization decades into the future. So added points to Mayor Pete.
Where to next?
Does this mean that one of the three men mentioned here will be elected president? That’s hard to say simply because there are so many variables involved. But if you look at past matchups a clearer, or at least less muddy, picture begins to emerge. Very often the individual with the most executive experience wins the election.
Think of Obama and McCain. Both were senators but Obama had been a community organizer and authored books and taught law. All of those things constitute executive experience. So, you might ask, why didn’t Mitt Romney beat Obama? After all, Romney was a golden boy from Bain Capital. But by Obama’s second term it was too late. Obama had the most and best executive experience and won that election.
George W. Bush, former two term governor of Texas, one of the largest states, and former baseball executive beat Al Gore a former Senator and Vice President and John Kerry a sitting Senator. Neither had much executive experience. Bush famously ridiculed Kerry for explaining a tactical senate vote as “I voted for it before I voted against it.”
How about G.H.W. Bush and Dukakis? Dukakis was a three-term governor of Massachusetts, but Bush had been highly successful running his own company in the competitive Texas oil business even pioneering aspects of deep water oil extraction. Bush won.
The same Bush lost to Clinton in a three-way race when the GOP vote was split by Bush and Ross Perot — two high powered executives.
Ronald Reagan had been a two-term governor of California, the 7th largest economy in the world at the time and handily beat former Vice President and Senator Walter Mondale.
Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford, a longtime member of the house. Carter’s executive experience? Running a mom and pop peanut business.
Now look at Kennedy-Nixon. JFK won a squeaker of an election and both men were senators; neither had a good deal of executive experience so we talked about Kennedy’s charisma and Nixon’s lack of it.
What about Eisenhower, the executive in charge of D-Day? Enough said already.
Finally, go as far back as FDR and Herbert Hoover. By this analysis Hoover could have beat FDR since both had similar experience — FDR as governor of New York and Hoover as head of a relief agency after the First World War and later as president. But Hoover totally mishandled a recession that turned into a global cataclysm and invalidated his executive credentials, so the results of the election weren’t close. FDR had the relevant executive experience having tried various relief solutions in New York.
This brings us to a last point. It’s hard to dislodge a president from office in part because voters have a good sense of his abilities as an executive, so if they voted for him before they’re likely to do so again. Trump may present a special case. Although he’s within sight of a majority approval rating, he’s demonstrated nearly complete ineptitude as a decision-maker. He’s also really good at stepping on himself when he should be quiet. In this he’s more like Hoover than any other recent president. This suggests a path to beating Trump — executive candidates should do all they can to demonstrate their executive chops while minimizing Trump’s.
In the end, that might not be enough simply because Mike Blumberg has more executive experience — and success — than anyone in the race. Moreover, he knows how to publicize it. For proof you need only look at his ad featuring Obama saying nice things about his executive qualities.