A certain Georgia Senate seat has a strange and revealing recent history. 2008 was the ultimate Democratic wave year, but the Georgia Senate seat remained in Republican control after a runoff election. 2014 is shaping up to be a Republican wave year, but Republicans are left hoping to retain that same Senate seat based on President Obama’s unpopularity. The Georgia Republicans have gone from being able to resist a Democratic wave to depending on a Republican wave. Much of this variance from national trends has to do with the particular weaknesses of Georgia’s businessman-turned-politician Republican candidate: David Perdue.
Perdue (like Romney) has been described as an outsourcer and the candidate of CEO-class indifference. Perdue, again like Romney, has not produced a compelling middle-class agenda to counter the claim that he is the candidate of the rich. That is too bad, because the campaign weakness of business executive candidates like Romney and Perdue means that the government might lose out on the experience and managerial talents of very accomplished men.
Right-leaning businessmen-turned-technocrats have a problem. The public recognizes that they are hard working, intelligent, and successful. It is less obvious that the political success of these men will benefit Americans who are at the earnings median rather than those who are more like . . . Perdue and Romney. Changes in the global economy have left millions of Americans feeling like they tread water during periods of growth and risk going under during recessionsand all the while, the Romneys and Perdues seem to do just fine.
This is where there is something of a split between the conservative base and many persuadable voters. Conservatives tend to have more of a positive opinion of (non-rent seeking) business owners and executives. But, as Henry Olsen has pointed out, persuadable voters have a much more ambivalent view of the boss. Many of the same executives who “created” or “saved” jobs in the U.S. probably also had a hand in outsourcing some jobs to other countries. The productivity experts who made their companies globally competitive likely also found ways to make their employees work harder for less security.
That does not mean that persuadables inevitably see business executives as worse than other kinds of candidates. People who have spent all of their adult lives chasing elective office, or people who are primarily distinguished by a famous last name have weaknesses of their own. But right-leaning business executives do face distinct challenges in winning over skeptical swing voters.
To address public concerns about their suitability, right-leaning businessmen-turned-candidates must direct their detail-oriented administrative competence to specific public purposes. And, perhaps more than any other kind of candidate, business executives need a middle-class agenda and an intuitive understanding of the priorities of persuadable middle-class voters.
Simply put, these candidates have to promote policies that are not the first choice of the business class. Flat taxes or tax policies that sharply cut tax rates on high-earners are unrealistic as matters of politics or budget math or both. But it might be possible to make the tax code more efficient while cutting taxes on working parents. If there were ever a challenge for a right-leaning technocrat, it would be expanding health insurance coverage and making insurance coverage more secure at a lower price than Obamacare.
But a middle-class agenda won’t be enough. Everyone remembers Romney’s 47 percent gaffe, but there was an equally revealing gaffe when Romney tried to talk about his (vague) ideas for healthcare reform. Romney was trying to explain how people benefit from competition, and he cited how he liked to fire people who provided services to him. There was a reasonable point in there, but Romney was out of practice (and perhaps had never been in practice) at talking about alternatives to Obamacare and he was careless of how badly his line came off, coming as it did from a millionaire. Educational and residential sorting makes it more difficult for candidates to get into the mental worlds of persuadable voters.
Difficult does not mean impossible. Romney was the millionaire scion of a liberal Republican family turned governor of Massachusetts. This was not a promising background for understanding the worldviews of conservative activists. To his great credit, Romney went to school. Romney’s GOP debate defenses of Romneycare are masterpieces for how they address the constitutionalist, localist, lower spending, lower tax, and personal responsibility values of conservative voters. Romney’s arguments are misleading, and he never became a natural at talking to party conservatives, but he made an impressive effort to show conservatives that he respected them enough to try to address their concerns. Other technocrat candidates would be wise to do the same thing with persuadable voters.
Executives who have run large, profitable private sector companies should be welcomed as candidates, but they should also be aware of the political liabilities of their backgrounds. These weaknesses don’t have to be fatal. Candidates like David Perdue must address, in speeches and policy proposals, the priorities of middle-class voters. If a businessman can convince voters that he will direct his talents toward advancing the interests of the middle-class and the struggling, he will find it easier to win the public’s trust.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.