The American political system is biased toward career politicians.
Re-election rates for members of Congress approaching or over 90% even in dramatic election years like 1994 and 2010 make this a political truism.
Conservatives often point to the long list of advantages given to incumbents as the reason so many can turn elective office into a lifetime occupation: full time staff providing constituent services, higher existing name recognition, better access to the media, established donors and volunteers carried over from the last campaign, campaign finance laws which incumbents craft but challengers do not, and so on.
These are just a few of the perks of office which carry clear political benefits the next time the incumbent goes before voters. Often overlooked, however, is how our system has become biased against candidates from the private sector, particularly when they challenge incumbents.
“Bias” doesn’t mean private sector challenges can’t and don’t win – but it does mean they face special challenges to which most incumbents are immune.
In 2010, Republican businesswomen Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina led the Republican ticket in California during a time of serious economic distress. Boosters of their campaigns, including my self, pointed to their record of experience in the private sector as reasons voters should trust them to make decisions in Sacramento and Washington on important issues like taxes, government regulations, and spending. We need more people in government with private sector experience, we said.
Consistently overlooked, however, is how real world business experience is turned against candidates and used to drive wedges between them and voters, and how incumbents are rarely susceptible to the same attacks.
Business experience carries great currency in the Republican Party, especially in the donor community whose members also know what it takes to meet a payroll and run a business despite seemingly endless efforts by government to frustrate success.
Yet, if you’re a candidate and you’ve been in business, the people running your opponent’s campaign will have a few questions for you. Has your business ever been in a lawsuit? Any disgruntled former employees? Did you ever hire lobbyists? For what? How about people on your board, have any of them gotten into any trouble? Any of your employees ever have an accident? Did you ever fire anyone? How about layoffs? OSHA violations? EPA problems?
When a business leader runs for office, the business decisions they made are revisited from a political perspective, rather than the context of what may have been necessary for the business to survive.
Sen. Barbara Boxer’s relentless attacks on Republican senate candidate Carly Fiorina illustrate this vulnerability perfectly. Mrs. Fiorina exemplifies everything feminists have claimed they support: a woman leader who broke through plenty of glass ceilings to lead one of the largest technology companies in the world, rising through the ranks as the result of tenacity, skill, and capability.
Yet, in her CEO capacity Mrs. Fiorina had to make real world decisions in restructuring the company for it to survive in a rapidly changing sector, and some of those decisions resulted in job losses. Overlooked, of course, are the negative consequences that would have resulted had those tough calls not been made, or if the company had kicked the can down the road, as government so often does.
The attack stuck, and Boxer used her campaign war chest, accumulated over six years and attributable to her status as an incumbent Senator casting votes on bills that matter to plenty of people who make political contributions, to drive that message at a time when Fiorina’s campaign lacked the resources to sufficiently respond.
Incumbents succeeded in a routine they’ve developed well over the years: turning a challenger’s private sector record into a liability.
Career legislators are largely immune from such attacks. Lawsuits? Layoffs? Run-ins with regulatory agencies? Life as a lawmaker usually shields most from such attacks.
Business leaders interested in public office can take steps to take the sting out of inevitable attacks on their private sector record.
- No one gets elected President the first time. Every election or re-election serves as a vindication of those issues raised before Election Day. Texas Governor George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign was nearly torpedoed because news broke four days before the election of a DUI he had received in Maine decades earlier. Bush won the election, and the issue never surfaced in 2004. Old news. More importantly, service in lower office provides valuable experience in learning how to navigate the alternate-reality of government, whose rules are dramatically different than those in the private sector. Mitt Romney and Herman Cain are both successful business leaders, but Romney’s biggest single advantage is having been elected a governor before running for President. It provides him with a massive cache of credibility not available to a first-time candidate.
- Spend (a lot of) time helping others. Building and growing a business, and in the process creating jobs for people, is an important service. Yet, voters give very little credit to business-leaders-turned-candidates for generating this social good. Businessmen and women who spend time with worthy, charitable efforts to help those who are neither customers nor employees help voters see the compassionate side of who they really are.
- Recognize that building a political enterprise takes time. In the process of switching from business leader to political leader, relatively little of the business enterprise will carry over. Political enterprises need to be built from scratch and include volunteers, donors, supportive elected and party officials and opinion leaders, advisers and others whose help can be valuable. A political enterprise takes time to build because much of it involves the leader taking the time to offer help others and build relationships, and that does not happen instantly. Meaningful loyalty requires genuine effort over a sustained period of time.
Candidates who take these steps find themselves better positioned to endure the onslaught incumbents will direct at challengers emerging from the private sector.