What Will-kie Mitt Do?

by Andrew Rudalevige on November 8, 2012 · 9 comments

in Blogs

It’s two days after the election, and thus time for a new spate of speculation (e.g., here, here, here) about who might serve in the second term Obama cabinet. One hot prospect is White House chief of staff (and former OMB director) Jacob Lew heading over to the Treasury Department. Will Hillary leave? Will Holder hold on? Who knows.

I do have a soft spot for personnel rumors, and personnel matters a great deal. Indeed, I will be posting as the transition goes on about various tactics re-elected presidents have used in the second term shuffle. (Some thoughts on second terms from earlier this summer are here.)

Meantime, though, I have a rumor to start myself: Mitt Romney as a presidential appointee.

I was struck by Ezra Klein’s recent musings on what drives Romney, who was historically light on public sector experience for a presidential nominee, into public service. The short version—managerial competence. Now this didn’t work so well for the last Massachusetts governor to be nominated, either – hence Romney’s contortionist reinventions throughout the primary season – but Klein argues that “What Romney values most is something most of us don’t think much about: management. A lifetime of data has proven to him that he’s extraordinarily, even uniquely, good at managing and leading organizations, projects and people. It’s those skills, rather than specific policy ideas, that he sees as his unique contribution.”

A lesson might come from Wendell Willkie, perhaps the last (and only?) “pure” businessman to receive a major party nomination.  (This narrative is drawn from Robert Mason’s terrific new book on the history of the GOP from 1929 to 1980.)

Willkie ran against FDR in 1940 as the electable moderate (the 1936 nominee, Alf Landon, said Willkie was the “excuse…needed to vote the Republican ticket” for “thousands of hard-shell Democrats who have been increasingly disillusioned and disgusted” with their party’s performance. Democrats pushed back by arguing, as Harold Ickes put it, that Willkie was “a Wall Street lawyer” whose “only claim to consideration is that he has…won the gratitude of some of the biggest interests in Wall Street.”)  After his loss, blamed as being insufficiently conservative, a “me-too” lite copy of FDR, Willkie was written out of the GOP.  Intriguingly, an advisor to Willkie noted after the election “a peculiar vein of sentimentality and lack of realism” among Republicans – notably a disinclination to believe poll results.

Yet Willkie remained active, attempting to push the party towards greater internationalism in the early 1940s and towards accepting the New Deal while working hard to make it more efficient and cost-effective. His civil libertarian credentials had been doubted by the NAACP during the 1940 campaign, but afterwards continued to work on racial equality issues to the point that NAACP president Walter White called Willkie “one of the truest friends [African-Americans] have ever had.” Willkie’s reward was to see 9 in 10 GOP activists in his home state of Indiana reject his renomination in 1944.

That same year, instead, Roosevelt invited Willkie to meet with him about the possibility of combining forces – in part, to free the Democratic Party of its reliance on Southern conservatives. The meeting, scheduled for after that November’s election, never happened – Willkie died in October. But he left an intriguing record behind.

Some Republicans have already begun to Willkie-ize Romney. “It is getting to the point where you can’t reach back and pull another establishment Republican from the queue like we have done with Romney,” Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, has declared. Whichever way the internal GOP blame-game goes, it seems unlikely that Romney will have a leading role in the national party heading to 2016.

But there are real problems now to be fixed, and even leaving aside the satisfying theatrics of the optics involved, Romney’s policy-neutral management expertise could be a real asset to the ongoing administration. Romney could energize, for instance, the once and future prospect of reorganizing the Commerce Department, Small Business Administration, and the like into one more user (and chief executive) friendly agency. He could consult on the fiscal management of sequestration (whatever version emerges). Heck, he could head the Office of Management and Budget – Ike’s budget director, Joe Dodge, was a prominent businessman.

On election night, President Obama said that he planned to “si[t] down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward.”  Why not ask for more than a nice photo op?

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