For the last three years, the Republican Party has been driven by what it’s against. Since taking office, President Barack Obama has created a target-rich environment for the GOP: an $800 billion stimulus that failed to deliver on promises to reduce unemployment, a $1 trillion health care overhaul that remains deeply unpopular, three years of record spending, and a $5 trillion increase in the national debt.
In 2010, the party successfully unified around an anti-spending message that helped it retake the House. And the base has rallied around the cause: When Fox News asked Republican primary voters about their priorities in October, 76 percent responded that economic issues “such as taxes and government spending” would be most important in deciding their votes for the party’s presidential nominee. Yet even as Republicans frame the 2012 elections as a referendum on the size and scope of government, the party allegedly in favor of reducing both is on the verge of nominating for president not a small-government firebrand or a free market apostle but a management consultant more interested in tweaking hated policies than doing away with them.
He’s not just any consultant, of course. Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP’s last presidential nomination, earned an estimated $250 million fortune in the management advice business—first as a consultant, then as CEO of a private equity firm spun off from his consultancy. Romney turned around a series of companies, helped introduce major innovations to the art of business management, saved a Winter Olympics from the brink of scandal and bankruptcy, and even righted the ship when one of the most prominent management consulting companies in the world was foundering. Then he applied the lessons he learned along the way to his gig as the Bay State’s governor, with mixed results. And now Romney is bringing his life-long business-strategy ethic to the uphill task of running for president.
After squeaking out a victory in the January 3 Iowa caucus, Romney was well positioned to win the GOP nomination. But the consultant’s road to the White House is paved with built-in contradictions, which Romney has a tendency to display all at once. At a speech in Washington last October, for example, the candidate made his pitch to conservative activists, unveiling a framework plan to cut spending and reform Medicare. Warning that it would require “tough choices,” he talked up the need to identify $500 billion in annual federal budget savings. There are “a lot” of federal programs that should “either be dramatically scaled back or cut,” he said. “We’re going to eliminate or cut programs that are not absolutely essential—even when we like them.”
What tough choices was Romney willing to make? Which popular programs would he eliminate? Just at the part of the speech where you’d expect some details, he shifted focus, promising to “preserve our commitment to a military that is so strong that no nation would ever think of testing it.” In fact, Romney swore he would “reverse Obama’s massive defense cuts.” And the alleged budget-cutter wasn’t done criticizing the president for his spending reductions. Later in the same speech, he even scolded Obama for weakening Medicare, vowing to “protect” and “improve” this most budget-busting of entitlements. Obama is “the only president in history,” Romney said, almost in wonder, “who has cut Medicare for seniors.” Rest assured that a Romney administration would reverse those cuts, too.
On paper, Romney was supposedly offering the gathered conservatives a vision of a “simpler, smaller, and smarter” federal government. But most of what little he offered in the way of specified cuts were drops in the ocean of a $3.6 trillion budget: defunding Amtrak ($1.6 billion a year) and Planned Parenthood ($300 million), eliminating foreign aid (which cost $49 billion in 2011) to “countries that oppose American interests,” reducing the budgets of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (less than $1 billion a year combined).
The gap between Romney’s cautious proposals and the GOP grassroots’ anti-spending fervor might seem like a paradox, but it’s easy to see how it came about. The last time Republicans held power in Washington, they jacked up discretionary non-defense spending by more than 60 percent, passed a new prescription drug entitlement, created a major new security bureaucracy that now costs $50 billion a year, and helped pass a $150 billion economic stimulus plan. The party’s most recent nominee for president was so enthusiastic about the Troubled Asset Relief Program that he suspended his campaign to help it pass.
In running an election roadshow that rails against bad policy while proposing only to tinker with it, Romney is holding up a mirror to the weaknesses and internal contradictions of the client he’s pitching. He is doing what top management consultants always do: presenting the customer with a slicker, better packaged, but fundamentally unchanged version of itself.
A Consultant’s Consultant
The old joke about management consultants is that they charge you to drink your coffee and then tell you what it tastes like. But the most successful consultants—and by any definition, that includes Mitt Romney—tend to do more than simply sip and summarize.
At its core, the business is based on problem solving. Management consultants ask the same basic question over and over again, explains Avik Roy, a former health policy analyst at the Romney-founded firm Bain Capital and current senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute: “If you’ve got a problem, how do you then break the problem down into discrete parts that we can then empirically address?” The job requires narrowing down mountains of data into a few key metrics, then feeding the information back to the client in executive-friendly formats such as PowerPoint slide shows, colorful pie charts, PDFs splattered with bullet points, historical line graphs, and so on.
Clients come into the process with a problem-solving challenge of their own: figuring out what they really want. Often, Roy says, that turns out to be “political legitimacy and blame dispersion for unpopular decisions.” Solving that problem requires a certain diplomatic sensitivity as well as a judgment-free willingness to roll with the punches. “This is a client-oriented business, so you need to be client-oriented,” Roy explains, which means ensuring that the final product isn’t too upsetting. “You want them to be satisfied with the output.”
Consulting work has defined Romney’s private-sector career. From the time he left school until the time he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1994, Mitt Romney never had a job that didn’t involve some flavor of management consulting. After graduating in the top 5 percent of his class at Harvard Business School in 1975, he headed straight into the upper echelons of the burgeoning consulting industry. He spent a few years at the Boston Consulting Group, then joined Bain & Company, another top-tier consultancy. He founded the company’s private equity offshoot, Bain Capital, in 1984. But he didn’t leave management consulting behind.
According to Stephen Kaplan, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, private equity investors in the early 1980s focused primarily on financial engineering, “where they would borrow the money, they would give management a lot of equity, and then they would monitor it. But they didn’t really help on the business side.” That changed with Bain Capital. Romney’s “big innovation,” Kaplan says, was “to bring consulting resources along with the financial engineering.”
That innovation helped make Romney a rich man. Today Romney’s estimated worth is somewhere between $190 million and $250 million, much of it acquired during his tenure as Bain Capital’s top executive. Romney so excelled at the job that he eventually became a consultant’s consultant. When his former colleagues at Bain & Company ran into financial trouble in 1990, Romney was called back in, named CEO, and asked to turn the business around. With the help of new management and financial restructuring, he did.