In recent decades it has been common for political pundits and some candidates for office to denigrate the very title “politician” and to promote the idea that what the country needs is to populate our government with non-politicians. In truth, of course, this means individuals who have virtually no relevant experience in the job. For some reason they don’t state their arguments in those terms. What they usually say is something like “my opponent is a career politician who has never run a business or hired people or met a payroll.” They like to say that it’s only common sense that “what we need in the legislature is people who have been successful businessmen.” Politicians, they claim, are isolated from reality, self-serving, only interested in getting re-elected. Non-politicians, it is implied, would bring to government the important skills of executive management based on reality.
I’ll return to those arguments later. First we can take a look at what our country has reaped from a business-directed philosophy regarding government. There are several relatively recent examples of political candidates who were successful in being elected using promises, from the punditry and their campaign supporters, that electing a prominent entrepreneur would revolutionize government. We can ignore those well-known individuals, like Ross Perot and Carly Fiorina, who attempted and failed in their campaigns. We might also leave aside those who have entered public service as legislators; our assessments of the success or failure of these individuals depend too much on partisan and subjective evaluations of their voting record. The important question is what happens when a wealthy businessperson becomes a high-ranking public servant in an executive position.
In New York City we had the example of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was the CEO of a very successful financial firm prior to his transition to the public sector. He was elected to the office of mayor in 2002 with virtually no relevant experience, but he was fairly popular, was reelected twice, and left after his third term only because of term limits. He made a good adjustment to the restrictions placed on public administrators, learning to work effectively with the 51-member city council and the various city agencies. There were, naturally, some disagreements, and a few cases in which Bloomberg vetoed bills and a few in which his vetoes were overridden, but overall his administration was competent and productive.
The same can almost be said of the tenure of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California, which began as a result of a crowded 2003 special election following the recall of governor Gray Davis. Prior to this Schwarzenegger had been a professional bodybuilder, winning the Mr. Olympia title seven times, and a popular movie actor. He was reelected once and for the most part cooperated with the state legislature. His second term was his last because of term limits, although he likely wouldn’t have been chosen for a third term because his approval rating at the end had dropped to 23 percent because of growing stories of ethical and sexual misconduct.
Moderate success is not something that can be said of the tenure of Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota. Ventura gained his fame as a professional wrestler, color commentator, and actor prior to serving one term as mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota and becoming governor in 1999 four years after his term as mayor ended. His single term was marked by significant dissension with the state legislature, producing a record number of legislative vetoes. He was accused of mishandling the state budget, ending with a large deficit, and repeatedly denigrated the media. He chose not to run for reelection.
Thus far it seems that the recent score for non-politicians in executive government positions is decidedly mixed, and certainly not an influence that has produced the revolutionary positive effects that have been promised by those promoting the meme of business-honed entrepreneurial skills.
At the presidential level the primary example of a successful businessman becoming a public executive was the brief tenure of Warren G. Harding, 1921 to 1923. His reputation for business acumen came from his rescue and rebuilding of a failing newspaper, the Marion Star, in Marion, Ohio. On his path to the presidency he served four years in the Ohio State Senate, two years as Lieutenant Governor, and one six-year term in the United States Senate. He parlayed his senate position into a successful run for president in the 1920 election. In theory he brought the best of both worlds, achievement in business enriched with experience in government at multiple levels. His governing philosophy was that government should assist businesses as much as possible, and he appointed Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce. The second year of his term was marred by multiple strikes, including a nationwide railroad walkout by 400,000 workers.
His administration was also marred by a series of scandals, most of which only came to light after Harding’s 1923 death from a heart attack. Most of them involved corrupt practices such as influence peddling and kickbacks. This has been attributed to Harding’s tendency to nominate friends and business associates with minimal relevant experience to high-ranking agency positions. The pinnacle was the Teapot Dome scandal in which the Secretary of the Interior was convicted of accepting bribes to allow an oil company to drill into naval oil reserves in Montana and California without the benefit of competitive bidding or any of the procedures required before implementation of such significant government decisions. Congressional hearings revealed that Harding had approved the drilling. Overall it seems that the vaunted management skills that were supposed to come with election of a president and agency appointments of business leaders were not present in the Harding administration.
In the history of the United States there has been only one president who went almost directly from acting as a corporate executive to the Oval Office. That was Donald Trump. Harding at least had a few years of public sector experience before he was elected to the highest position. Trump had none. He is then, the most pure example of a high-level business administrator elevated to a government executive position, a fact that does not argue well for the theory of private-sector preference. Admittedly, Trump was not exactly the best example of an entrepreneur, given that what he achieved in business was financed by family wealth, was sustained as much by questionable public relations efforts as by good management, and was marred by repeated investment errors and bankruptcies. His public record is similarly replete with poor choices for campaign advisors and managers of federal agencies, inconsistent decision-making, self-serving decisions, and statements that demonstrated his lack of knowledge of U.S. history, science, laws, traditions, and regulations. Not to mention his lack of interest in all of the above. He famously treated the heads of agencies as if they were his personal minions, there to do his bidding (as if they were mid-level managers) instead of public servants dedicated to the legal mission of their organization and the public welfare. This is especially true of his four Attorneys General, each of whom were treated as if they were Trump’s personal lawyer. He was impeached twice, once for misusing federal resources in an attempt to slander a potential competitor and once for inspiring an insurrection to keep himself in power.
We could treat the Trump debacle as a fluke, a one-time disaster that resulted from elevation of a singularly unqualified individual, but the primary characteristic that caused Trump to fail was one that is unfortunately common among private-sector managers. That is the tendency to operate as a unitary executive, to make decisions without consulting other stakeholders. Public service is a different world; administrative options are much more limited due to policies regarding transparency, mandatory public hearings, judicial review, and the fact that most of the real decision-making power is invested in the legislative bodies rather than the executive. Like a powerful CEO, President Trump was not used to having his decisions questioned, much less blocked, and that became obvious in many of his choices and in his negative reactions to setbacks. In four years the Trump administration clearly demonstrated how foolish it is to promote business leadership by itself as a model to reform government.
The next time you hear a candidate say the all-too-common phrase “I’m not a politician” as if that were a positive attribute, imagine yourself on a human resources team looking at applicants for a job you need to fill. You need an experienced welder, and a candidate comes in and says, “I am not a welder.” Or you need a sous chef and the applicant tells you, “I’ve never cooked a thing.” Do you hire those people? If not, tell me why would you hire a declared non-politician for a job that requires political skills, including talking to constituents, writing legislation, and compromising to get that legislation passed? And if you do hire (vote for) that person, how can you then still expect your government to work effectively and accomplish things on your behalf? Or perhaps you are in fact a conservative “small government” idealist who really doesn’t want government to work well at all.