Bain Brain: How Managing Like a CEO Has Led Romney Astray

The Republican candidate is hard-wired for private equity work -- and that's hurting his bid for president in more ways than you think.

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Romney with former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton. When inquiries into Romney's Bain activities made news in January, party leaders showed increased support to strengthen his position going into the primary. (Reuters)

The talk about Mitt Romney's Bain Capital years has largely turned into a simple, binary political debate. Either they prove his business credentials and make him the man best equipped to lead America out of high unemployment and sluggish economic growth -- or his role in putting profits before people, outsourcing jobs and dismantling companies disqualifies him from the presidency.

But there's a less obvious way Romney's Bain Capital experience is impacting this election: Regardless of what voters think of his credentials, his oft-disputed management consultant triumphs have provided him with a structured template for thinking and analysis. It's a way of approaching the world that has tripped him up several times in recent weeks. Call it a case of Bain Brain.

Candidate Romney has spent decades constructing and reviewing PowerPoint presentations about possible private equity investments in an orderly and emotionless fashion. Can this company be turned around? Is it stuck because it's targeting the wrong market? Is it wasting its resources on futile R&D? Would a smaller and more focused business ultimately succeed in the marketplace and be more profitable?

That was precisely the species of unflinching analysis on display in his now famous remarks about the 47 percent, revealed by secretly recorded video. That was the Bain Brain at work -- a classic example of segmentation and market analysis, now applied to a political setting.

Romney could just as well have been saying: "We're not going to make a success out of Acme Widgets by going after the 47 percent of the market that's been buying Consolidated Widget's products for years. Their customers are happy. Consolidated gives them big discounts which yields fat margins. And Consolidated sends their consultants to work at client organizations, so their clients have become lazy and dependent on them. So we need to target those who aren't reliant on Consolidated for all their widget needs."

But the problem was that he was talking about human beings. The clear-eyed way he was speaking of his own candidacy showed a steely ability to abstract, making him look devastatingly aloof. It was as if the battle-proven investor's calculus -- a mix of game theory and scenario-building used to plot out transactions -- had become a hard-wired processing system in the Romney cranium.

Romney's not-for-public-consumption remarks have been compared to Obama's parallel "clinging to their guns and religion" comment. But as many observers have pointed out, Obama followed up by saying that it is important to keep communicating with that group, that "our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives." His voice was that of the naïvely hopeful community organizer -- as opposed to the cut-your-losses and double-down on the "addressable market" voice of private equity.

The idea that everyone can be convinced -- indeed, that none are unpersuadable -- is central to who Obama is (as well as to what some say is a creepily messianic view of his own gifts). But what of Romney? What's particularly fascinating about his abject lack of confidence in his powers of persuasion in the political arena is how different that capitulation is from the proselytizing core of Mormonism, which holds boundless faith in the human potential for profound conversions and sends young men, like the young Romney, out on missions to convert strangers.

Presented by

Adam Hanft

Adam Hanft runs a brand strategy and digital consulting firm in New York City. He has written on politics, culture, and business for The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, and Salon.

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