The Scourge of the Businessman Politician

Attentive readers will recall that among my many pet peeves (and being able to complain to a wide circle of people about your pet peeves is one of blogging's greatest fringe benefits) is the candidate who proclaims that you should vote for him because he's "a businessman, not a politician." As though the fact that there are a lot of shady car mechanics out there means that when you need a new timing belt, the best person for the job would be a florist or an astronomer, because they're not tainted by the car repair racket.

I've written at some length about why exactly success in business doesn't prepare you to be a good senator or governor, but the short version is that the two realms are extremely different. So it isn't too surprising that when businesspeople decide to run for office, most of the time they fail. They come in with a lot of money, flush it down the toilet on an overly expensive campaign, and quickly discover that there is a whole set of skills necessary for success that they don't possess. When you try to think of business leaders who got elected, then used their business acumen to do things differently and really made a major impact, it's hard to think of many names other than Michael Bloomberg. Here and there you'll find someone like former Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen who did pretty well, but more common is candidates like Ross Perots, or Meg Whitman, or Linda McMahon, or Al Checci (there's a blast from the past for you political junkies). They think, "Sure I can do this better than those empty suits—I've made a billion dollars!" And then they lose.

Not every time, of course, but most of the time. Which is why Democrats should be pleased to hear this:

Republicans are banking on businessmen to help them retake the Senate in 2014.

A half-dozen top GOP candidates boast records as wealthy businessmen and entrepreneurs. If voters decide they’re successful job creators on Election Day, Republicans could be on their way to the six seats they need to win the upper chamber.

Now maybe these candidates are all going to turn out to be just aces. But if history is any guide, more than a few of them are likely to be terrible at running for office. For many of them it's their first time, which is often a disaster, and it's particularly hard to have your first run for office be a high-profile Senate race with lots of pressure and press scrutiny. (The list of highly successful politicians who had a loss in their first run for office, or one of their first runs, is a notable one. It includes Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, among many others. It seems that early loss is a highly edifying experience.)

It's easy to see why this is happening. These candidates are attractive to party leaders because they bring their own money. Republicans have also spent years creating a cult of the businessman, trying to convince others, and no doubt convincing themselves, that those who succeed in business are the most virtuous, brilliant, and generally admirable of all human beings. And that may extend to primary voters, to a degree anyway. Which gives them a good shot to make it to the general election, and which also means that we're going to have to endure a lot more of that "I'm no politician, so I can clean up Washington!" crap in this election. But what else is new.

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