Prop Zero
The Starting Point for Commentary and Coverage of California Politics

Politics and Billionaire CEOs Don't Often Mix

When it comes to elective office, the CEO leadership model works only infrequently.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    We’ve seen this movie before.

    The millionaire—or billionaire—corporate type who enters the electoral arena, touting his or her CEO skills and business savvy and crafts a populist, anti-government message.

    On the silver screen, Mr. (or Ms.) Smith goes to Washington and shakes things up.

    In real-life politics, sometimes the business mystique works with voters, but often it doesn’t.

    Cue Meg Whitman, the former eBay chief and current CEO of Hewlett-Packard, where she landed after losing the 2010 race for California Governor to Democrat Jerry Brown—despite spending a record $144 million of her own money in the campaign.

    And cue Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts Governor and venture capitalist currently mud wrestling for the GOP Presidential nomination.

    The jury is still out on Romney; but we do know that the CEO leadership model works only infrequently in politics. Romney, like Whitman -- his good friend and high-profile supporter -- is finding the campaign trail more daunting than the board room.

    In a corporation the CEO has full control. Sure there is a board of directors, but the CEO is in command, unless the board decides to replace him or her.

    Politics and government don't work that way--they are far messier and less controlled.

    For every Michael Bloomberg, New York’s billionaire mayor, or Richard Riordan, who went from venture capitalist to governing L.A., there’s a litany of failed campaigns by corporate lions and lionesses: Whitman, of course; 2010 GOP Senate candidate Carly Fiorina; former Northwest Airlines Chair Al Checchi, who spent a then-record $40 million of his own moneyto lose the 1998 Democratic Gubernatorial primary—among many others.

    CEOs and the Super Rich live in a bubble and can find it difficult to relate to "regular folks"--often trying too hard or looking uncomfortable in the process.

    Like Whitman, Romney 2012, is being pushed out of his comfort zone, politically and culturally--in a political environment that puts an ever-larger premium on a candidate’s “authenticity.”

    Romney 2012 is not as politically naïve as Whitman turned out to be; her gubernatorial campaign resembled more the Romney Presidential operation of 2008—bloated and expensive, over-populated with high-priced consultants and staff.

    In 2010’s weak economy, hot on the heels of TARP and the federal financial bailout, Whitman suffered from the anti-Wall Street, anti-establishment sentiment percolating among voters.

    That’s only been exacerbated for Romney, in the era of Tea Party politics and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

    Both candidates took a hard line on immigration and then faced a kerfuffle over their domestic help.

    Whitman was nailed not only for hiring an illegal immigrant, but for the way she ineptly handled the blowback in the media and among voters.

    Questions surrounding Romney’s maids’ salaries—rather low, according to his 2011 tax return--and his hiring a gardening service that allegedly employed illegal workers, have not yet created the same tumult, perhaps because he’s had more practice dodging political potholes.

    Romney’s selling hard his business resume but, like Whitman, he’s finding that corporate firepower doesn’t automatically translate into dividends in the political arena.

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