The Ticket

‘The Real Romney’ looks at the first quant who would be president: Character Sketch

The Ticket

COLUMBIA, S.C.--With the Republican nomination shimmering just over the horizon, Mitt Romney dominated the news at noon Tuesday on WIS, the NBC affiliate here. A flashback to Monday night's Republican debate described it as "Mitt Romney against the rest." A new South Carolina poll, sponsored by Monmouth University, showed Romney leading the GOP five-pack, even among evangelical voters. Sid Bedingfield, a journalism professor at the University of South Carolina, cautioned, "It's no secret that conservatives are not in love with Mitt Romney." And there was no break from the midday Mittathon when the newscast paused for commercials: A 30-second spot sponsored by a shadowy independent group called Citizens for a Working America PAC heralded Romney as the only Republican who could beat Barack Obama.

Barring a dramatic upset in next Saturday's South Carolina primary or a political upheaval soon thereafter, voters will have more than nine months until the November election to contemplate Romney as the nation's 45th president. No White House candidate can stand public scrutiny for that long without new revelations or, at least, new theories about what makes him tick. But the contours of the Romney story are unlikely to change--a devoted son of a failed presidential candidate; devout Mormon and dedicated family man; data-driven (and maybe cold-hearted) business consultant and leveraged buyout executive; non-ideological one-term governor of Massachusetts; and disciplined right-wing presidential candidate who has been running virtually nonstop since 2007.

Assuming Romney is indeed the Republican Party's presidential nominee, the jumping off point for all future explorations into his political and business record will be The Real Romney by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, which was published Tuesday. The authors, Boston Globe reporters assisted by the rest of the newspaper's staff, have written a shrewd and fair-minded biography of the cautious and unruffled front-runner, a candidate who appears to be basing every public comment and gesture on research from a PowerPoint presentation (his favorite form of briefing).

The Real Romney contains little that is likely to dominate the headlines this week or influence Saturday's voting in South Carolina. But make no mistake, this book is important. It offers intriguing insights about Romney, who would be the first president to see the world through the prism of quantitative business analysis rather than backslapping politics. (George W. Bush, who was a year behind Romney at Harvard Business School, also had an M.B.A., but as a presidential candidate in 2000 and 2004 he campaigned as a decisive C.E.O. rather than a dedicated quant who believes that cosmic truth can be found in numbers.)

Here are some thoughts about how man in The Real Romney might govern from the Oval Office:

"It was good training for how life works. I mean, rejection of one kind of another is going to be an important part of everyone's life."

That was the mature Romney, running for governor in 2002, looking back on his two and a half years as a Mormon missionary in France during the late 1960s. What comes through in the Globe's telling was the austere isolation of the missionary experience: no television, no telephone, and minimal contact with home. Just a regimented life of prayer, French studies and knocking on doors in quest of converts.

Most presidents (think Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton or both Bushes) have never spent more than a stray afternoon living the contemplative life. But looking ahead to the November election, it is fascinating that Romney's missionary years have an eerie similarity to Barack Obama's stint as a community organizer in Chicago. (Yes, their motivations were starkly different). Like Romney, who found between 10 and 20 French converts, Obama had minimal success in creating anything lasting amid the abandoned steel mills of 1980s Chicago. Although, Obama was not under religious discipline, his life in those days was monkish. As Obama wrote in Dreams from My Father, "When I wasn't working, the weekends would usually find me alone in an empty apartment, making do with the company of books."

Holding oneself aloof may be a Romney tradition. In a 1967 magazine profile, Life described presidential candidate George Romney as "a loner who is really close to one person, Lenore," his wife.

"A wall. A shell. A mask. There are many names for it, but many who have known or worked with Romney say the same thing: he carries himself as a man apart, a man who sometimes seems to be looking not into your eyes, but past them."

In this passage, Kranish and Helman are summarizing dozens of interviews depicting Romney as driven and task-oriented, congenitally impatient with the small social niceties that leaven day-to-day life. Outside his family and a small group of longtime, mostly Mormon friends, Romney tends to regard other people as data points rather than as objects of curiosity. At Bain Capital, where he made his fortune, Romney encouraged debate and disagreement within the formal structure of company decision-making. As Romney explained his management style at a 2007 conference, "Get people of different background and experience who disagree with each other and are willing to debate and argue." This adversarial method combined Romney's law-school training and the case-study method central to the Harvard Business School.

There is no single personality type that automatically produces successful presidents. But, as we have glimpsed with Obama, there is a downside to a leader who is swaddled in bubble wrap of his own making. Anyone elected without close political intimates (truth-tellers like Senator Richard Russell for L.B.J. or Jim Baker for George H.W. Bush) can be victimized by the sycophancy that naturally surrounds a president. Even if a President Romney were to demand candor, aides would be apt to bow to his whims and tell him what he wanted to hear. That is how it is in all White Houses, as bad news has a way of being diverted and distracted before it gets to the Oval Office.

Driving around New Hampshire in the months before the 2008 primary, Romney insisted on traveling in a personal Fortress of Solitude, accompanied only by his longtime press secretary, Eric Fehrnstrom. In contrast, most presidential candidates use drive time as a way of cementing the loyalties of party activists and picking local political intelligence. Romney did not "apply the old adage about management by walking around," Brian Keough, who headed Romney's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign, complained to the Globe reporters. "If you want to know how things are going on the factory floor, go talk to the factory workers." Unless the cameras are on, such unstructured banter is the antithesis of the Romney style.

"This start was nothing like the typical small business. It was a nearly risk-free opportunity with substantial financial backing — and a lucrative fallback plan in case of failure."

The candidate's more than two decades at Bain, as The Real Romney summarizes them, did not fit into either the create-jobs mythology that he pushes in campaign debates or his critics' portrait of a gimlet-eyed cost-cutter distributing pink slips like confetti. Romney, who the biography describes as "deeply risk averse," was hesitant to leave the structured environment of business consulting to head the company's new private-equity arm. Ultimately, Romney the Reluctant Capitalist negotiated a sweetheart deal under which the partners at Bain Consulting would provide the seed funding to launch Bain Capital. And, if the new venture somehow went south, Romney would get his old consulting job back complete with retroactive raises. Romney, in fact, was so cautious that he concocted in advance with the firm's founder, Bill Bain, a cover story to explain away any future failure.

What should not be lost in the campaign debates over Romney's activities at Bain is how adroit an investor he was. According to a private analysis of Romney's record conducted by Deutsche Bank, Bain Capital made money on roughly half of its investments. "Overall, though, the numbers were stunning," Kranish and Holman write. "Bain was nearly doubling its investors' money annually, achieving one of the best track records in the business." Bain Capital tended to concentrate on the industries that 1950s auto executive George Romney might understand: makers of wheel rims and photo albums. For all of Romney's political boasting about helping launch Staples, Bain invested only a paltry $2.5 million in the company before selling its interest after three years for $13 million.

Romney's greatest business triumph had nothing to do with creating new companies, and everything to do with saving the Bain brand. In the early 1990s, the eight original partners, who pre-dated Romney at Bain Consulting, wanted to cash out. The company foolishly borrowed $200 million to buy back their holdings just as the 1991 recession hit. With Bain Consulting on the cusp of bankruptcy, Romney was brought in from the sister firm down to the hall to devise a rescue plan. The Romney solution inflicted a heavy dose of pain on all concerned: the original partners had to give up $100 million in equity; nearly 20 percent of Bain's worldwide work force were laid off; the compensation for the remaining business consultants was cut; and creditors were forced to take 80 percent on the dollar. But Bain survived and eventually prospered. It was, in the words of Kranish and Helman, "the very definition of the kind of 'turnaround' for which Romney would claim expertise."

"My usual approach has been to set the strategic vision for the enterprise and then work with the executive vice presidents to implement that strategy."

Those were Romney's words to a group of state legislators in 2003, a few weeks after he was sworn in as Massachusetts governor. In the annals of governing, it is hard to imagine a more maladroit way of courting independent legislators than likening them to executive vice presidents in a Romney-run enterprise. This disdain for politics had its virtues. Romney as governor ran a virtually scandal-free administration in which patronage took a back seat to merit. And although it would be a tad embarrassing to stress this point on a debate stage while other Republicans are threatening activist judges, Romney's judicial picks as governor were shaped far more by merit than ideology.

The unanswered question in The Real Romney is how much has this relentless businessman learned about how politics really works in his decade as governor and presidential candidate. As Kranish and Helman tell it, after his failed 2008 presidential bid, "Romney closely analyzed the campaign … he wallowed in the data, crunched the numbers and evaluated the results thoroughly."

It is hard to imagine another politician analyzing defeat in such a systematic manner. It is also hard to capture the essence of politics through such a bloodless exercise. Romney, in fact, brings to mind Louis Armstrong's immortal response to the question of what is jazz: "If you don't know, don't mess with it." Maybe these days, Romney knows. Or maybe the Republican Party is embarking on a grand experiment to test whether business methods can really succeed in the political arena--and, ultimately, if Romney is lucky, in the White House.

Walter Shapiro, a special correspondent for the New Republic, is covering his ninth presidential campaign. Follow him on Twitter at @waltershapiroPD. This is part of a series of Yahoo News columns examining what we know about the character and personalities of the 2012 candidates.

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