The 'Olive Garden' Theory of Mitt Romney

How would he govern as president? Or as Olive Garden CEO?

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Policy bloggers love analogies. They also love election speculation. So when it came to discussing the infamously malleable Mitt Romney (he always says the right thing, this reasoning goes, but what does he really believe?), former Bush speechwriter now blogger David Frum couldn't resist this comparison. Here's the simplified version: Mitt Romney is like the CEO of an Olive Garden chain--he doesn't necessarily "pander" to his customers, but constantly reassesses his dishes to serve them what they really want. If Romney was president, therefore, it wouldn't really matter what he believes because what matters is "is satisfying each and every customer [i.e. voter]" to the "very best" of his ability.

Unable to resist weighing in on Romney as an Olive Garden CEO, numerous other bloggers weighed in. Here's how the debate unfolded, starting with some back-and-forth between Frum and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.

  • Romney Has Good Ideas, But It's Hard To Tell What's Real and What's Fake, figures Ross Douthat in a blog post responding to David Frum about Romney's recent "triangulation" on the tax cut compromise. The argument that's frequently made against Romney, writes Douthat, is that he's "serially insincere." But the Time's writer prefers to see him as a "smart guy who’d make a solid center-right president--wonkish, detail-oriented, sensible on policy, all the rest of it. He's just a prisoner of the process!" Unfortunately, Douthat concedes, issue by issue his "pandering" campaign style "makes it awfully hard to figure out where he would actually stand when the pandering stops and the governing begins."
  • The Olive Garden Theory of Mitt Romney  On his website, Frum Forum, David Frum responds to Ross Douthat and humorously makes the analogy of Mitt Romney as the CEO of Darden restaurants, owners of Olive Garden, Longhorn steakhouses and Red Lobster. He poses this question: If Romney is CEO of these restaurants, what happens if data shows "show a decline in demand for mid-priced steak restaurants and a rising response to Italian family dining?" Should CEO Romney convert some of his Longhorn steakhouses to Olive Gardens? "Is that 'flip-flopping'? Or is that giving people what they want for their money?" he asks. Romney faced this problem when he was a "pro-choice" Boston senator who expanded to a "national brand" and took a more conservative stance to support "new opportunities" in places like Iowa and South Carolina.
You may say: But what does Romney think on the inside? Which of his positions is the "real" Romney? I'd answer that question with another question. Suppose an Olive Garden customer returns to the kitchen a plate of fettuccine alfredo, complaining the pasta is overcooked. What should the manager do? Say "I disagree"? Explain that it’s a core conviction to cook pasta to a certain specified number of minutes and seconds, and if the customer doesn’t like it, she’s welcome to take her patronage elsewhere? No! It doesn’t matter what the manager "really" thinks. What matters is satisfying each and every customer who walks through the door to the very best of the manager’s ability.
  • Nice Analogy Frum, But It Doesn't Work (aka the Hookah Bar Retort)   The Washington Post's Ezra Klein "enjoyed" the Olive Garden analogy, but doesn't buy into it. There's an important distinction to be made: "The presidency carries a four-year lock-in, while the Olive Garden doesn't." He muses:
If going to the Olive Garden meant only eating at the Olive Garden for the next four years, it'd be a real problem if they lured you in with pasta and breadsticks and then, three months later, turned the place into a hookah bar that served only salmon burgers. Some people might find that to be an improvement, and some people might not, but that's not the point: A fishy hookah bar isn't what you signed up for.
Frum is right that customer service can be a principle in and of itself. And I'd be really interested to see a presidential candidate promise to better represent the people by explicitly using polls to steer his or her presidency. But that's not what Romney is promising. He's promising to do certain things, and uphold certain values, when in office. If he's lying about that, it's not customer service.
  • Interesting Points, But Romney Isn't a Restaurant CEO  At ThinkProgress, Matt Yglesias chimes in agreeing with Ross Douthat, and believes the main point at stake with Mitt Romney as president is character:
The executives of Darden Restaurants [owners of Olive Garden] are basically trying to make money. And so are the owners of the firm. And that’s fine. Most of us aren’t so distressed by the idea that the firm is, on some level, a soulless money-making machine. But on this view, Romney is . . . what? A soulless power-seeking machine? To a large extent our political system is already biased toward promoting power-crazed sociopaths into positions of authority. The public’s aversion to people who appear to have this quality to a greater extent than other high-profile politicians seems very understandable to me. Meanwhile, at the end of the day Ross Douthat is right to say that this still leaves you necessarily puzzled by the question of what a Romney Administration would actually do.
  • For Not Being a Restaurant, He Has Been Serving Up a Lot of 'Red Meat' Lately  The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn joins the fray and concedes that "he once had very high hopes" for Romney, but now--despite his "raw intelligence and management acumen"--he wouldn't be voting for the ex-governor. He attributes this to Romney's "full pander mode" beginning in 2007, where he would "say anything" to win over the GOP base. Cohn concludes: "Of course, most politicians pander. And there are times that I believe, as Frum apparently does, that the real Romney would make a decent public servant. But mostly I'm with Douthat these days: It's become virtually impossible to tell where the fake Romney ends and the real one begins."
  • Actually, Romney's More Like a Robot Than a Restaurant  Perhaps unaware of the Romney as an Olive Garden CEO analogy, The Boston Globe's Scot Lehigh prefers to see Mitt Romney in terms of his 2008 "model" and the "prototype" of his 2012 model robot. As a strategy for a potential 2012 presidential bid, Team Romney has decided to have the man "play to his strengths" and establish himself as a "smart, pragmatic, solutions-oriented Mr. Fix-It." But Mitt, in Lehigh's view, still seems to be pandering to the base on two big issues: tax cuts, health care reform and the START treaty. Romney even wrote a USA Today op-ed voicing his concern with the tax cut deal in an attempt to win over the hard-line conservatives. Lehigh's verdict: "for those eagerly awaiting the new, improved 2012 Romney, a word of caution: Don't get your hopes too high. So far, the prototype suffers from many of the same flaws that plagued the 2008 model Mitt."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.