Why A C.E.O. President Is Probably Doomed

Illustration by Barry Blitt.

Illustration by Barry Blitt.

The charge against Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina is that she took a reasonably good company, Hewlett-Packard, and wrecked it by engineering a merger with another computer company, Compaq. No doubt this criticism is enraging to Fiorina and to her supporters. Where were all these Clever Nellies back then, if they’re so smart, instead of now, when all they do is get in the way of her presidential campaign?

Fiorina’s defense against the charge that she made an unholy mess at Hewlett-Packard is that the company was already an unholy mess, maybe even a hopeless case. There are no such things as miracles, and therefore Fiorina should not be blamed for failing to produce one. Actually, she sometimes throws numbers around which suggest that she did, but the claims and counterclaims get murky very quickly.

In any case, nobody is asking, “Where is Carly’s miracle?” No one is demanding miracles at all. The point her critics are trying to make is that you don’t deserve a reputation for business genius simply by failure to wreck a company under your surveillance and control. And that is essentially what Fiorina’s most plausible defense amounts to: I took a company that was going to hell and I didn’t make it worse. Even this modest claim is contested by critics such as Joe Nocera, in The New York Times, who say that she did in fact make things worse. Some may argue that “she didn’t make things worse” is actually not a bad slogan in this era of voter cynicism. But even if Fiorina is right about the H.P.-Compaq episode, one single deal would not be enough experience to run for president on.

The claim that she didn’t make things worse may impress some in the business world (although there is little evidence of business executives flocking to support one of their own), but it doesn’t impress the world of politics, where you either win or you lose and there is no middle ground. In trying to evaluate a business, you start wherever the business happens to be on the profit-loss spectrum when current management took over. Then you measure success or failure from there. If you run a small division of a big company, and you’ve turned it from a $100 million loss to a $25 million loss, you’ve done much better than your rival who has turned a $200 million profit into a $15 million loss, even though his loss is $10 million less than yours. In politics, by contrast, you start at zero and must persuade voters that you see eye to eye with them about price supports for wheat or getting the Mexican government to pay the cost of building a border wall, or you get them to admire your skill and gumption in being able to wear three-and-a-half-inch-high Manolo Blahniks during a three-hour debate. For a politician, every day is truly the first day of the rest of your campaign.

For any other job I can think of, experience at the job is considered to be an asset. Obviously no one can truly have had experience at being president except for an incumbent running for re-election. There are certain jobs, however, that prepare you at least for a small part of the job of president. I would have thought, for example, that being secretary of state is pretty good training for a future president. So is being vice president, to take another example. Governors running for president like to say that the governorship experience is valuable because their state is larger than 63 members of the United Nations, or has an economy the size of the moon, or something along those lines. The analogy between running a sovereign nation and running a state government is not perfect. A nation has to field a military force or at least have some theory of what happens if neighbors invade. It must do something about the currency and the economy in general. It must have a foreign policy. Nevertheless, the mandate of a governor remains larger than that of, say, a senator. But with the voters of 2016, this sort of experience cuts no ice. In fact, experience like this is a negative. It’s not your long record of loyal service that counts. It’s the gaffe you committed last week. The newer you are in public life, the less likely you are to have committed a career-compromising gaffe. That’s why experience of any kind—in politics or in business, successful or unsuccessful—can be a disadvantage in politics.

Corporate titans are even less like ordinary Americans than politicians are, and generally don't survive long in politics.

But voters have somehow gotten the impression that experience in business is closer to the real world than experience in politics. In terms of lifestyle—how you get to work, where you buy your suits, whether you know how your dishwasher works, what you do on weekends—this is almost certainly not true. C.E.O.’s live on a cloud of assistants, standing ready to satisfy their slightest whim. Think of the Smithers character on The Simpsons. Or think of another cartoon character, Donald Trump. When was the last time he rode the subway? Giving too much weight to this kind of symbolic populism, which we do, is foolish. But to assume that a congressman leads a lifestyle that the C.E.O. of even a small business would envy is naïve. It’s the other way around.

(Giving the keynote speech at the annual convention of cartoon characters in Las Vegas recently, Arianna complained of exploitation. “Darlings,” she told a crowd of 10,000, “we must stop allowing them to portray cartoon characters as shallow and one-dimensional. We have depth, we have psyches, etc., etc…. Now where does it go from there? Google it for me, darling. I think it was Thomas Jefferson.”)

Actually, Donald Trump is nothing new, and Carly Fiorina is new only because of her gender. Most recent presidential campaigns have featured some deus ex machina candidate, usually from the business world, claiming to have experience that is better than the experience of running for office and then running the government. Only one business titan has ever been elected. That was Herbert Hoover, a mining magnate who traded in an enviable reputation as overseer of humanitarian work in Europe during and after World War I for a reputation he will never shake, whether justifiable or not, as the hopeless loser who needed to be ejected from the White House in order to make room for F.D.R., the professional politician.

It’s a typical pattern that voters begin looking with interest at a businessperson early in the campaign, then switch allegiances when it’s time to get serious. That’s what happened to Lee Iacocca, the C.E.O. of Chrysler, whose chief accomplishment as a businessman was getting the government to bail out his failing car company. And don’t forget Peter Ueberroth. (Too late? You’ve already forgotten him? Oh well … ) He was the head of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, and some people came to believe—briefly—that anyone who can run an Olympics should find running the country a piece of cake. A generation later, Mitt Romney tried the same argument, with the same lack of success.

And we mustn’t forget Ross Perot (although there’s no harm in trying). In 1992 he ran an independent campaign for president, got on all 50 state ballots, and ended up with about 19 percent of the popular vote. Perot claimed we’d soon be hearing a “giant sucking sound” that was the sound of jobs leaving the U.S. for Mexico. He promised that, as president, he would open up the hood and see what that rattling noise was in the machine of government, or some such metaphor. (Perot’s campaign was a symphony of peculiar sounds.)

But at least all these earlier business candidates had substantial records of achievement. Carly Fiorina’s campaign is based on the equivalent of one business-school case study. And she seems to have gotten even that one wrong.