Saturday, March 10, 2007

Private Past, Public Pain

Both the current and former governor of Massachusetts have been taking their lumps lately. Although very different men, Deval Patrick's and Mitt Romney's difficulties stem from the same root, their shared background as bigwigs in the private sector.

What's common practice in business cuts no ice in politics. This leads to understandable confusion among those corporate folk who try their hand at elective office. Shareholders applaud or shrug off executive actions that appall voters-even if the shareholders and voters are the same people.

None of Patrick's actions that gave the Globe and Herald such fainting spells would have made a CEO's day book. Executives are expected to pamper themselves a bit in return for whatever it is they're doing to make their business prosper. A friendly phone call on behalf of an old corporate acquaintance falls under the category of "cast your bread upon the waters." No big deal.

These practices are no big deal in politics, either-until one caught at them. Public servants are supposed to be just that-men and women who wait hand and foot upon the body politic in return only for gratitude when they don't get kicked. Liberal Democrats like Patrick bear an additional burden. They're supposed to live like the disadvantaged they wish to help. Otherwise they're hypocrites. Of course, the rigidly austere Michael Dukakis had the snot blasted out of him anyway, so who could blame Patrick for thinking, "whatever happens, by God I'll have nice drapes"? The general counsel of Coca-Cola had nice drapes in his office, I'll bet.

Also, a governor can't make phone calls on behalf of persons and institutions from his past. Everything he or she does is a conflict of interest, because the Commonwealth is a huge institution with innumerable interests. After two years of asking everyone he met to scratch his back, Patrick now can't stratch anyone back without getting in trouble. It's unnatural, and like many a private wheel turned pol before him, Patrick's having trouble adjusting. Truth is, Patrick will spend his four years being judged on how well he squares the immutable circle of American politics. The voters demand both a high level of government service and low taxes. They also react with fury when told this fantasy is a mathematical impossibility. Your truly will give him his home and life to follow to the death any candidate who runs for high office on a platform of telling the American people they're full of it I don't expect to be called on that promise.

As befits a man with four years experience as governor, Romney's moved past that quandary. His difficulties involve an eager willingness to shovel it into the American people, subset Republican, with a backhoe. He's gleefully repudiated half the things he said as a two-time candidate for office here and as an actual governor. As a smart chap on the lefty Americablog said, "Romney was for Massachusetts before he was against it."

In politics, such blatant opportunism makes enemies and draws ridicule. In the private sector, opportunism is no vice, it's a shining virtue. What is Bain Capital, Romney's old firm, but a whole pile of money looking for ways to be opportunistic? Consistency and the free market are not often compatible companions. A dealmaker is expected to say anything that'll seal the deal, and let investors sort out its merits after the fact. It seems harsh to blame Romney for not seeing he needed to discard what had worked for him most of his life just because he was running for president.

Businessfolk-turned-officeholders stumble as Romney and Patrick almost every time they start a campaign and/or new job due to the same culture shock those two capable men are undergoing. Yet we the people keep electing newcomers from the private sector to high office on the fallacious notion "rich people steal less." Apparently we the people don't keep up with business and financial news.

Given that habit, we the people should be prepared to accept the culturally induced missteps of private-turned-public men as part of OUR costs of doing business. As long as the new pols snap out of it in a year or so, there's no harm done.

In politics, there's only one earnings statement-it's over a year away for Romney and almost four years in Patrick's future. If either man needs comfort, they should to the golden West.

Never was there a political newcomer who was a more celebrated private sector success than Arnold Schwartzenegger. The governor of California couldn't do anything right in his new job for a year or more. Two years later, he's right back on top of the game.

Foolish pols lament the fickleness of the voters. Wise pols count on it.


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