Conservatives might talk about running the government like a business, but they don't actually think we should do that. This week The Wall Street Journal's editorial page brutally denounced Mitt Romney's campaign as looking "confused in addition to being politically dumb" and perhaps "slowly squandering an historic opportunity" in its response to the Supreme Court's ruling on Obamacare. The Journal's editorial page has never been very fond of Romney, and that's because Rupert Murdoch hasn't either, The New York Times' Jeremy W. Peters reports. Murdoch, who's been tweeting complaints about Romney's campaign, never got excited about Romney even after his three meetings with the candidate and the Journal's editorial board. According to Peters, a late 2007 meeting was a disaster, marked by Romney telling them that in picking his cabinet, "I would probably bring in McKinsey" to help guide the selection. It was "a comment that seemed to startle the editors and left Mr. Murdoch visibly taken aback."
McKinsey is a management consultant firm, and there's no debate over whether its consultants are smart young people, or whether its advice is expensive. There is much debate over whether that advice is valuable. The shock that Peters reports was subtly evident in the Journal's 2007 write-up of the meeting:
Running a government organized like this is, he explains, impossible. "So I would probably have super-cabinet secretaries, or at least some structure that McKinsey would guide me to put in place." He seems to catch a note of surprise in his audience, but he presses on: "I'm not kidding, I probably would bring in McKinsey. . . . I would consult with the best and the brightest minds, whether it's McKinsey, Bain, BCG or Jack Welch."
Shortly after that report appeared, Michael Kinsley explained in Time magazine why that was such an odd comment from Romney:
At their best, consultants see a situation with fresh eyes and bring some useful analytical tools. At their worst, they are a prestige play verging on a protection racket. Hey, Mr. CEO: Every other big company has hired McKinsey. What's your problem?
The notion that the cacophony of politics can be replaced with the smooth hum of expertise and that all the challenges our society faces can be solved by making the government run more efficiently has a long and generally laughable history.
And for a perfect example of why it doesn't work, look at the problem Romney is facing right now. As governor of Massachusetts, he hired a bunch of experts to help craft a health care reform law based on a decade-old idea from the conservative Heritage Foundation. But not long after, the politics of health care shifted, and now Romney is in the position where he must denounce the national version of his own law -- Obamacare -- as a horrible tax increase while defending his own plan as a brilliant law that in no way whatsoever raised taxes. President Obama would argue in this case that Romney's cool technocratic approach to Romneycare was genius, but that's only because it delivered the outcome Democrats want: wider access to health care. Romney's fellow Republicans, though, are not praising it, because they think other principles are more important. That's the difference between government and business -- sometimes principles matter more than math.