America, Inc

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Romano and Michael Hirsh

A bumper crop of CEO politicians are campaigning to run the country like a bottom-line business.

To hear Jon Corzine tell it, Meg Whitman is either deceiving us or deceiving herself. Like Whitman, the former eBay CEO who's vying for California's Republican gubernatorial nomination, Corzine is one of the few people in America who has tried to make the leap from running a business (in his case, Goldman Sachs) to running a government (the state of New Jersey). He can only scoff when he hears Whitman arguing that deficit-ridden California desperately needs her corporate skills. Corzine also thought "the managerial skill set would be helpful," he tells NEWSWEEK. But after four grueling years as a Democratic governor--ending in a humiliating defeat by an uninspiring Republican opponent--Corzine no longer believes that being a CEO prepares anyone for the day-to-day grind of governing. "The idea that you're accountable to a bottom line and to a payroll in managing a business--it gives voters the confidence that you have the right skills [to govern]. But it's 20,000 people versus 9 million. I don't think candidates get the scale and scope of what governing is. You don't have the flexibility you imagined. There's no exact translation."

Corzine has a point. Very little that happens inside a corporate suite is like governing a state or a country. CEOs, like generals, can issue orders and expect them to be carried out. Jobs and budgets can be pared by fiat, with little public controversy. It's not nearly as simple for governors or senators--even presidents. Their authority is never absolute. They are constrained by the separation of powers and forced to ride the tiger of public opinion; they must persuade, cajole, and arm-twist to get their way. As Harry Truman once said about his presidential successor, Dwight Eisenhower: "He'll sit there all day saying do this, do that, and nothing will happen. Poor Ike--it won't be a bit like the Army." Beyond that, there's rarely been a time in American industry when CEOs have been so discredited. The last "CEO presidency"--George W. Bush's--ended up in a ditch. The CEOs of Wall Street have provoked outrage by awarding themselves record bonuses during the worst recession in decades--a recession they mainly caused.

Even so, a number of former corporate chieftains are insisting that this is their moment to become political leaders. Jobs are on every voter's mind, and execs have experience at creating them. With a record $1.6atrillion federal deficit, and states and localities seriously underwater, expertise in budgets has become a national imperative. And let's face it: if corporate executives are mistrusted, the politicians in Democratic-controlled Washington are even more so. "I'd rather be a Republican CEO than a Democratic incumbent in this environment," says Doug Schoen, a political consultant who has advised both Corzine and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, perhaps the most successful ex-CEO politician in the country. Most of the new candidates are conservatives: Whitman thinks she's ready to take over California, the world's eighth-largest economy; ex-Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina, who advised John McCain in 2008, wants to replace Barbara Boxer in the Senate; Linda McMahon of World Wrestling Entertainment is competing for the Senate seat that Democrat Chris Dodd is retiring from; and Mitt Romney is preparing for another GOP presidential run.

So maybe it's time for a reality check. In truth, both arguments about the CEO as politician--pro and con--have their merits. But neither view, in the end, is entirely accurate. As the U.S. struggles to restart its economic engines and restrain government spending, it would be wrong to let populist passions disqualify an entire class of business leaders from public service. At the same time it would be irresponsible to entrust the reins of government to people simply because they happen to have handled a payroll. …