Move over, Henry Ford, William Randolph Hearst, Wendell Willkie, and Ross Perot. Make room, Steve Forbes, Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Meg Whitman. Add Herman Cain to the long list of successful businessmen and women who succumbed to what they thought was a public clamor for a business resume only to find boardroom skills do not transfer easily to political campaigns.
As Cain struggles to overcome a barrage of sexual-harassment allegations before they sink his Republican presidential campaign, he still doesn’t get it that what took him to the top of the pizza world might not be what voters are looking for in 2012. At his press conference on Tuesday, Cain nicely captured the rationale behind his campaign in five sentences, even if he did refer to himself in the third person:
“For decades,” he said, “the American people have wanted a businessman in the White House, not just another politician. Because for decades, all the politicians have been doing is kicking the can down the road, trim a little bit here, trim a little bit there. When America's biggest problems simply got worse, a businessman by the name of Herman Cain stepped forward. Here I am. I know from the American people that I have talked with and I have spoken with over the past several months we are not going to allow Washington or politics to deny me the opportunity to represent this great nation.”
The problem with this assertion is that there is little indication either in American history or in the current polls that the American people do, indeed, want a businessman in the White House. In fact, every time one has presented himself, the voters have turned their backs—often just months after the public seemed to be calling for the very candidacy they now were rejecting.
One businessman who resisted the temptation was Chrysler boss Iacocca in 1988. When people were giving him money and demanding that he run for president, Iacocca sought advice from then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill. As Iacocca recounted in his book, O’Neill told him, “You’re used to running a big corporation. When you make a decision in the morning, you either earn a profit that day or you don’t. You can’t run a government that way. It would drive you crazy. You wouldn’t last a year. You’d have a heart attack because of the frustration.” Iacocca wrote that he concluded “that to run for president you’ve got to be over-ambitious or just plain crazy.” And the lesson he took was that “you can be a success in business and not have the temperament to be president.”
But others atop the business world either could not resist the blandishments or could not believe that they couldn’t run the nation’s affairs better than any politician could. Henry Ford ran for the Senate in Michigan in 1918 as a Democrat and wanted to run against Calvin Coolidge for the Republican presidential nomination in 1924. But, dogged by allegations of anti-Semitism, he concluded he could not get enough support from GOP kingmakers. Five decades later, Ross Perot believed he was the only leader capable of dealing with the nation’s deficits and self-financed independent presidential runs in both 1992 and 1996.
But only once in the nation’s history has a businessman who never held any public elected or appointed office managed to get a major party nomination for president. That was in 1940, when Indiana utility executive and lawyer Wendell Willkie won the Republican nomination to go against President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He lost in a landslide.
The record since has shown a few victories in state or municipal races for political newbies in their first political offices—billionaire Michael Bloomberg as mayor of New York City, plastics executive Ron Johnson as senator from Wisconsin, and health care entrepreneur Rick Scott as governor of Florida. But most of the candidates who touted their business expertise have lost even at the state level. That was true even last year, despite an incredibly friendly atmosphere for Republicans.
To see why business candidates often stumble when they enter politics, look no further than California in 2010. Republicans nominated two businesswomen—eBay executive Meg Whitman for governor against Democrat Jerry Brown and former Hewlett-Packard boss Carly Fiorina for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer. “Both had lots of things about them that were attractive,” said veteran California Democratic strategist Bill Carrick. “But at the end of the day, they came up short, running against two accomplished political veterans.” He said that was particularly true in the governor’s race because of Brown’s “grasp of the issues and knowledge and understanding of the substance and how to talk about the problems confronting the state. That turned out to be a huge advantage.”
Both Whitman and Fiorina “talked about things in the same top-sider, business perspective. And I don’t think anyone responded to that particular message,” he said. Politicians understand they will get media scrutiny. They understand their lives will be examined. And they understand how to respond when allegations surface of the type confronting Cain. Carrick said that most candidates “would instantly recognize that the way to handle this is to get every bit of information at your disposal out there and deal with it right away and get it over with.” In contrast, Cain did just about everything wrong in response. Most laughable to Carrick was when Cain refused to answer questions over the weekend. When a reporter politely persisted, Cain turned to an aide and said, “Please send him the journalistic code of ethics.”
“Can you imagine you get pulled over by a cop for speeding and you hand him the city code of ethics?” asked an incredulous Carrick. “When you are doing that, you have already lost the battle.”
Presidential historian George C. Edwards of Texas A&M University said most business candidates have failed throughout history because the worlds of business and politics are so dramatically different. “They have a mind-set and it’s difficult to adjust that mind-set to a different world, and politics is very much a different world than business,” he said. In the business world, executives usually get their way with compliant boards and deputies they appointed. In government, there is a Congress, there are courts, and there are other world leaders with their own views. “The ability to compromise, the ability to negotiate with people who also have power as opposed to ordering them what to do. These are needed skills,” said Edwards. “It’s why, on average, businessmen who have been cabinet secretaries also have not been particularly successful.”
In 2012, there is also the reality that many voters blame boardroom excess and corporate greed for plunging the nation into a deep recession that started in 2008. “There is the image problem of someone from the corporate world,” said Carrick. “And then there is also the fact that if you spend your life in politics, you just know how to behave in a campaign in ways that are much stronger than if you are somebody who has been in the private sector and has never been in politics.” He said the problem for a candidate like Cain “is compounded by the fact that we have constant media coverage and scores of best-selling books all highly critical of business and corporate behavior in America.”
And because business candidates don’t have voting records and public records to scrutinize, their business resumes are closely examined. “It never seems,” said Carrick, “that anybody from the business community is quite prepared to deal with that.”
Certainly, Cain was not.