An Unfortunate and Unintended Consequence of Donald Trump

Donald Trump is bad for business. This isn't just a fearful prediction of how the economy would fare if a compliant Congress enacted his nativist and isolationist rhetoric. Rather it is what Trump's emergence might mean for business people who want to enter public service. This is especially true for Democratic business people, who currently face an unusually strong head wind when they try to bring their knowledge of the private economy to elected office.

It's a lesson I learned the hard way. In my campaign for Congress, many Democratic primary voters assumed and worried that someone with a superficial similarity to Trump -- a business person self-funding his campaign -- might share Trump's values and world view.

I don't blame my opponents for helping voters draw those comparisons: They saw an advantage and took it. And while I do not think I lost simply because of Trump's looming presence in the minds of Democratic primary voters, it certainly made my campaign more difficult.

Stereotypes notwithstanding, the notion of elected Democrats with a background in business is not farfetched. While most Democratic elected officials have backgrounds in law or the public sector, business leaders have achieved electoral success. Leaders like Mark Warner of Virginia; Bob Kerrey and Ben Nelson from Nebraska, each of whom served as Governor and Senator; Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo; and Representative John Delaney from Maryland, the only member of Congress who was the CEO of a publicly traded corporation.

The question is whether the Democratic Party will continue to have a place for experienced progressive business leaders as elected officials, or will mindless comparisons with Trump make it almost impossible? I believe Democrats will make a huge mistake if Trump's candidacy leads them to reject candidates with business backgrounds, particularly with economic issues at the center of the public policy debate.

Just as diversity makes our country stronger, the same is true for a political party. Elected officials with a business background bring a unique set of skills and experience that can help Democrats govern successfully and solve vexing questions around middle class job creation and wage growth. These skills complement rather than mitigate the orientation of candidates from law and the public sector. Politically, business candidates help defeat many arguments Republicans use against us.

The stereotyping runs deep. Too many commentators and Democratic activists presume business candidates care about profits over people, loyalty to the status quo, want to "run government like a business," and do not have experience that will translate into the public sector.

In reality, business candidates bring skills honed through training and experience that can help government succeed. We know how to develop and execute a strategy for the long term, prepare workforces for the future, extract efficiencies from scarce resources, create and work within budgets, and find novel solutions to nettlesome problems. We know that long-term investments are required to achieve larger goals, and that true success is only achieved if all stakeholders succeed.

Entrepreneurs, in particular, fight against and disrupt a hidebound status quo that resists competition to the disadvantage of consumers. In the process, they drive innovation and growth. People with business backgrounds integrate information from disparate sources to accurately forecast outcomes and successfully negotiate among players with initially divergent interests. In the retail sector, our laser focus on the consumer is particularly useful at a time when elected officials should put the interests of the citizen first.

Few would disagree that these skills and experiences are important in government. On the other hand, many Democratic activists are too quick to dismiss the people who have them. Instead, they fall back on baseless stereotypes of business candidates as ingrained as the stereotypes with which Republicans attack Democrats.

The Trump comparison with Democratic business candidates fails on a number of grounds. Trump exhibits few of these skills, having risen to fame mainly through a combination of inherited wealth and an uncanny facility for self-promotion. But the real problem with the Trump parallel is assuming that other business candidates share his world view.

The tools of business can be used to pursue dramatically different outcomes. Where Trump would build a wall along the Mexican border, Democratic business candidates embrace diversity and a growing population. Where Trump believes essentially all of government is a failure, Democratic business candidates bring inventive ideas to help government deliver services more efficiently and effectively to the individuals and families that need them. Where Trump has a misogynist and demeaning attitude toward women, Democratic business candidates embrace women and men alike as breadwinners and family leaders. Where Trump believes we can turn back the clock on our energy polices, Democratic business candidates see an advanced energy economy that will grow jobs and preserve our environment.

Trump's resistance to keeping his promise to veterans groups stands in stark contrast to the selfless generosity I find among business leaders when raising money for non-profit organizations or contributing the fruits of our success. Trump's divisive rhetoric and appeals to the dark side of human nature is completely counter to my experience that success depends on bringing together as many people as possible.

Democratic criticisms of Donald Trump center on his psychological makeup, his divisive and disrespectful attitude toward others, and the famine, pestilence, war and death that his election would portend. I completely agree. But for my own party, I also worry that an unintended consequence of his candidacy will be resistance to candidates who can help Democrats achieve goals we share.