What Will-kie Mitt Do?

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?

9 Responses to What Will-kie Mitt Do?

  1. Daniel November 8, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

    This is too easy: put him in charge of implementing Romneycare!

  2. Todd November 8, 2012 at 8:23 pm #

    You seem to have jumped from “Romney is driven by his powerful belief in his own managerial competence” to “Romney’s…management expertise” without offering any steps in-between. Seems a bit loose there, Andrew. There are many folks who look back at Romney’s time in charge of Massachusetts and see something quite other than “management expertise.” Care to explain where and how you see his expertise playing out during his government tenure?

  3. Wonks Anonymous November 9, 2012 at 11:16 am #

    Is their any other major party candidate comparable to Wilkie in their lack of a public service record?

  4. Tom Levenson November 9, 2012 at 11:20 am #

    One problem with this is the reported (and to my eyes, entirely believable) antipathy the two men feel for each other. I can’t see Romney being willing to report to a man he repeatedly taunted as being out of his depth; I can’t see Obama seeing the point in hiring someone who views the president in that light.

    Not to mention, as a previous commenter noted, Romney’s belief in his managerial competence and the empirical evidence of same are two different chickens entirely. The details that will emerge of issues in the Romney campaign (admittedly from self-serving sources, in many cases) will, I think, reinforce that notion.

  5. Chaz November 10, 2012 at 4:26 am #

    Doubtful. During this campaign Romney told a lot of lies and said a lot of offensive* things. And he specifically said them about Obama and Obama’s supporters.

    I am guessing Obama will not choose to appoint a man who is on record saying:
    Obama is anti-business
    48% of Americans are lazy
    We should double Guantanamo
    Abortion is immoral
    Obama is weakening our country
    Obama is ashamed of America

    And all the rest.

    *At the very least, things that offended many Democrats.

  6. Chaz November 10, 2012 at 4:30 am #

    And if the only qualification he demands is managerial skill, and he is willing to accept any baggage one might have, there must be a thousand capable Democrats Obama’s advisers could list to do whatever jobs he might consider Mitt for.

  7. Michele November 10, 2012 at 11:09 am #

    Hilary Clinton said plenty of unflattering things, some of which were barely factual, about Obama during the primaries, and yet, he chose her for one of the most important offices in his administration. Yes, she’s a ‘fellow’ Democrat, but with the country crying out for bipartisanship, why not be the bigger man and ask Romney to be a part of that?

  8. Andreas Moser November 10, 2012 at 7:41 pm #

    Ezra Klein says: “A lifetime of data has proven to him that he’s extraordinarily, even uniquely, good at managing and leading organizations, projects and people.”

    I say: Mitt Romney was not able to read polls or add Electoral College votes together. He was blind to the facts and he built a campaign of a few hundred fellow followers who were equally blind to the facts. He apparently did not encourage criticism or questioning among his own people.

    This is the worst management style I could think of.

  9. Chaz November 10, 2012 at 8:32 pm #

    I do not see any evidence that the country is crying out for bipartisanship. A few pundits are.

    And besides, what does Romney have to offer? The only thing Obama could theoretically gain from bipartisanship is a higher approval rating or Republicans supporting his policies in the House and Senate. Romney can’t deliver either of those.