Mitt Romney, Meg Whitman and the Failed CEO Campaign

One of the creepiest early campaign moments was eBay CEO Meg Whitman dialing for dollars at Mitt Romney's fund-raising telethon last January, a farce created to showcase the Romney campaign's organizational skills and potential financial might (it raised $6.5 million). "You won't believe where I am! I'm at the Boston Convention Center with four or five hundred other people dialing for contributions for Mitt Romney," gushed Whitman.

Fast forward nearly exactly a year (and a similar fundraiser that yielded only $1.5 million), and Whitman, a Romney finance co-chair, is pleading for calm: "We still have a chance to win this thing." But, said Romney's national finance director, "if for some reason he is not the nominee, all those funds will be returned to the donor himself." Such confidence from some of American business's greatest minds (what eBay's shareholders and users think of the company's CEO being in bed so publicly, at least figuratively, with a notoriously homophobic politician of such dubious pedigree as Romney, is a matter for further discussion).

Not all billionaires are created equal, and Whitman hasn't claimed to be Oprah Winfrey, whose charisma and following probably gave a nice lift to the Obama campaign when it needed it most. But what Whitman, Romney and their Fortune 500 crowd did imply is that their success at Bain, eBay, et al, would translate into a winning campaign. This has not happened. At all.

If the past 12 months are any indication, it's hard to see how all of Romney's clients at Bain haven't asked for their money back. And it's not only because business skills don't necessarily translate to politics: by any standard the marketing and financial management of the campaign have been disastrous. I'll grant them that the product (i.e. Romney himself) is not a compelling one: a charmless, Mormon governor of the most liberal state in the nation doesn't spell success in a Republican primary. But they must have known that going in, no?

In any event, the marketing has been inept: the candidate was badly positioned as a social conservative to begin with (did they really think no one would dredge up Romney's radically different positions from just a few years ago?), the branding was inconsistent, and there was no emotional message whatsoever. And now Romney has been powerfully tarred, in a stroke of Mike Huckabee genius, with looking "like the guy who laid you off." That's because he IS the guy who lays you off: that's what consulting firms like Bain do. This is not a good thing in Michigan, the next GOP primary, more affected perhaps than any other state by "restructuring."

Finance, too, has not been stellar, as evidenced by the fundraising that has lagged well behind leading Democrats' and even Ron Paul's. Without Romney's substantial infusion of his own fortune, the campaign would have been broke a long time ago. As it happens, though, it is broke now, at the worst possible time. Pulling ads that were ready to go in two of the next three states so that the campaign can "focus" (ie spend the money) on a state, Michigan, of which Romney's father was a popular governor, is not a sign that things are going well. And why was there no real contingency for back-to-back losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, where Romney was leading by double digits until a few weeks before they voted?

None of this is a complete surprise: the presidential, and even congressional, landscape is not replete with successful business people turned successful politicians. Campaigning itself is basically anathema to most CEOs, for whom showing up at the annual shareholders' meeting is distasteful. And while running a large company and running a government require some of the same skills, there are more differences than similarities. There is nothing inherently special, magical or appealing about career politicians, but campaigning, gaining political power and holding on to it IS their full-time job, and many of them are rather good at it (whether that's good for us the governed is a different matter).

George W. Bush, our first MBA President, is not a good example of the lack of translatable expertise from the private to the public sector. He was a complete failure in business, succeeding only at extorting money from Bush family cronies, local governments and gullible fools. In his case, the stain isn't so much on MBAs in government, as it is on Harvard Business School, who awarded Bush his degree to begin with.

And now Michael Bloomberg, the multi-billionaire mayor of New York, is back on as a presidential possibility, it seems, we think. Do we care? Not really. Despite being a dilettante (in the words of one lobbyist still upset at his two mayoral victories), he's been a reasonably good manager of New York, especially after eight years of the strident, corrupt, racist reign of Rudy Giuliani. But what could possibly be the appeal nationally? The Democrats will come up with a good candidate either way (unlike the New York City party for the past three elections), so this is not the year that will see many Democratic voters run to an independent candidate (unless the Clintons goes ballistic on Obama), even if Bloomberg spends $1 billion on a campaign. And if there weren't enough Republicans willing to jump ship to elect (or even give one state to) an independent, short, nasally billionaire in 1992 (Ross Perot), there won't be in 2008, even if Huckabee is the GOP candidate.

And surely there will come a point when even the most entitled, self-involved, courtesan-surrounded multi-billionaire will realize that the odds of succeeding are so low that it is not worth the humiliation of a whooping by a mere multi-millionaire professional politician.