Unpacking The Binders
Legends are more interesting and more attractive than the reality underneath them. And sometimes, things are said that inadvertently reveal a great deal more than the speaker intends. So, quoth Mitt Romney in last night’s debate:
…I was serving as governor of my state, [so] I had the — the chance to pull together a Cabinet and all the applicants seemed to be men. And I — and I went to my staff, and I said, how come all the people for these jobs are — are all men? They said, well, these are the people that have the qualifications. And I said, well, gosh, can’t we — can’t we find some — some women that are also qualified? And — and so we — we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, can you help us find folks? And I brought us whole binders full of — of women. I was proud of the fact that after I staffed my cabinet and my senior staff that the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.
I propose to take this story at face value as if it were the whole, unvarnished, literal truth. At the end of the post, I’ll get to pointing out that there is reason to question the complete veracity of the story. But, the bulk of what I’m interested in assumes that this is a thoroughly accurate and fair description of what actually occurred back in late 2002 and early 2003 during the transition period between Mitt Romney’s election as Governor of Massachusetts and the time he was sworn in to begin his term of public service.
I want to approach it that way for a reason.
After all, it’s just plain human nature that when people tell stories about themselves, they tend to tell stories about the version of themselves that they wish they actually were, the person that they would like to see in the mirror. There is every reason to think that this is phenomenon is especially prevalent in candidates for high office. So the story at face value tells us something about Governor Romney’s idealized vision of himself as a leader. And that tells us something about the sort of leadership we could expect from President Romney.
Right away, we see that W. Mitt Romney the then-Governor-elect is passively sitting back after getting elected, reviewing resumes and applications during his transition. He doesn’t have any ideas about who he’s going to appoint to Cabinet-level positions? That doesn’t sound right. A leader has people he leads. A team. A leader to an important position who must head up a team of people who will exercise substantial independent discretion and authority needs to be recruiting, not reading resumes.
Maybe the team is not yet complete at any given point in time. Maybe then-Governor-elect Romney needs to leave some spots open for people he owes favors to, maybe then-Governor-elect Romney hasn’t identified everyone with sufficient subject matter expertise to fill every spot. And there is a level of staffing where it’s appropriate to say, “Let’s see what’s out there in the public, let’s open this up.” But for a higher-level position, for an incoming executive, there ought to be no trouble finding most if not all of those position from within the ranks of one’s own supporters, partisans, and acquaintances.
Part of the basic skill set of the executive is the identification of people with strong skill sets to fulfill particular tasks. Ideally, they will have the right blend of their own ideas and personal initiative to do good things on their own, and a willingness to subordinate their own agendas to the larger goals of the team and their leader. Much of what happens in leadership is selling those talented subordinates on the leader’s vision for what the team as a whole is going to do and be about, so the subordinates’ intelligence, initiative, creativity, and talent get focused on those goals.
Romney is not demonstrating that skill set here. He is not recruiting anyone. Events are happening around him, not because he’s making them happen. Granted, the focus of the story is not about his vision for his Governorship, and not about how good he is at finding talented people. Presumably all of these resumes, those of men and women both, demonstrated that the applicants possessed at least adequate and hopefully superior qualifications. Giving Romney that much benefit of the doubt, the next question is how does the Governor select from amongst candidates that were all at least adequately qualified for the positions under discussion.
Being the eagle-eyed executive that he is, then-Governor-elect Romney is putting together his executive cabinet and while reviewing applications he says, “Hey, check it out, these are all doodz. That’s gonna look bad, yo.” (Okay, maybe not quite those words, but “Can’t we find some women that are also qualified?” is so much more pedestrian.) So then he directs outreach to women’s groups, and specifically solicits resumes and applications from women. He gets back binders full of resumes, and then selects women for several unspecified but presumably substantial positions within his administration.
Now, let the record reflect that I’m actually cool with that if it went down that way. If as an incoming executive he detected a significant gender imbalance in the talent pool available to him, then yes, he ought to do outreach to remedy that imbalance and make an effort to craft a cabinet that better reflected his state’s citizenry.
Leaving aside the problem mentioned in my esteemed colleague’s spot-on critique — there shouldn’t have been that imbalance in the first place — the political problem I see is that to a certain kind of Republican, a certain kind of conservative, even a certain kind of libertarian, this looks like giving preferential treatment to a favored group, remedied by then giving preferential treatment to a different favored group. It’s affirmative action. And in order to appeal to that certain kind of voter to whom affirmative action is not a pleasing policy, Governor and Candidate Romney has taken formal stances and formal actions against it.
In 2003, after formally taking office as Governor, Romney abolished the Massachusetts Office of Affirmative Action by executive order, creating in its place a monitoring board with no enforcement powers, insisting that he loves workplace diversity the whole time. When he later got a lot of political heat for it, he tacitly re-implemented affirmative action policies without formally putting them back on the books. His successor returned the letter of the law to its pre-Romney condition.
When he first ran for President back in the 2008 cycle, he (or his campaign) said about affirmative action to the Washington Post, “I believe our nation is at its best when people are evaluated as individuals … I do support encouraging inclusiveness and diversity, and I encourage the disclosure of the numbers of women and minorities in top positions of companies and government – not to impose a quota but to shine light on the situation.” No quotas and everyone is considered as an unique individual, but yes, diversity is a good thing to achieve too. It’s just not a top priority. Pretty de rigeur stuff for a Republican running for President in our contemporary times to say.
And because of that, I deduce that he’s really got no particularly strong feelings about the subject. His concern about women in his cabinet was one of trying to avoid an accusation that he was sexist. In word but not deed, he’s against affirmative action. In deed but not word, he’s only against affirmative action when it’s called that — if you call it something else or you just do it without a name, he’s in favor of it, as long as it’s not called what it is.
The truth seems to be, he just doesn’t care that much about affirmative action one way or the other. As Governor of Michigan, his father was a leader on affirmative action not just within the Republican party but nationally, and Mitt does still openly and appropriately admire his father’s career. This may help explain Mitt’s lukewarm receptiveness to it. And I suspect that this background makes him, deep down, receptive to it. But five plus years of running for President in today’s Republican Party requires that he suborn those basic instincts and judgments to the doctrines demanded by the base.
What would the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission be like under a Romney appointee? What would the Department of Labor be like? What would their priorities be? If Congress ever gets around to passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, would it meet a Romney veto or a Romney signature, and should that bill ever become law, how high a priority would enforcement by these agencies be? If these sorts of issues are matters of indifference to President Romney, it’s a good bet that they will be easily placed near the bottom of the priority list.
What his story tells us is that despite whatever rhetoric he feels obliged to recite on the campaign trail, he’s perfectly willing to actually do affirmative action when he sees that it needs to be done. But he’s desperately unwilling to be identified as doing it — because he fears backlash from his political support group.
This echoes what seems to be the case about healthcare policy: Romneycare good, Obamacare bad. The most substantial criticism of Obamacare, the individual mandate, was the centerpiece of Romneycare. I understand the federalism argument; I just don’t agree with it. So what seems to actually make Romneycare good and Obamacare bad is the label attached to it, not what’s actually inside the package. Romney actually has no ideological trouble with the individual mandate or any of the coverage or underwriting restristrictions; substantively, he has no quarrel with Obamacare. He just needs to be perceived as being opposed to it, and he’ll be perfectly happy to actually implement it so long as he can do it in the dark, when no one is paying attention.
There’s a degree of deception involved there, and the ones who are really being deceived are the people already at his back, not the people he’s trying to convince to start supporting him. And there is no substantial ideology, no substantial vision of what good policy will be, or even identification with any a particular policy goal there.
A leader originates goals for his team, and articulates why those goals are worth pursuing. If compromise is eventually necessary, the leader identifies what can be achieved, what can be salvaged, and what must be set aside. The point is not the achievement or non-achievement of the goal — it is the establishment of a goal, and the communication of the commitment to the goal’s pursuit. Deep down, on not only affirmative action and civil rights, but also healthcare and probably a lot of other things, Romney does not have strong feelings, much less passion, about the goals he is articulating on the campaign trail. His policy agenda, at its core, is made of plastic and not steel.
What’s more, leadership isn’t doing the right thing but only through the back door where no one can see it happening. Leadership would be saying to the world, “I know this isn’t going to be popular with some of the people who voted for me, but we need to do it because it’s the right thing to do.” Then-Governor-elect Romney didn’t do that openly; he did it quietly and we’re really only hearing about his outreach to women for the first time now.
Inevitably as President, something’s going to come up that social conservatives are going to get very excited about, and that excitement and attention will deny President Romney the discretion he would like to do as he would prefer. That leads me to predict that at some point in his Administration, and probably either directly on or powerfully motivated by social issues, President Romney will not have the testicular fortitude to stand up to his own base, and he will cave in, personally half-heartedly, do so something that pleases them which he personal would rather not do if he felt he had the freedom to do as he pleased.
The way that this will manifest which comes immediately to my mind is the appointment of a Justice to the Supreme Court of the United States. While the social right has been largely quiet about the Supreme Court so far in this cycle, if and when a Justice retires or passes away (and four of them are at least septuagenarian) this will immediately turn into political wildfire. This will be especially true if the vacancy is created by the not-implausible departure of either Anthony Kennedy or Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The result will be a nominee who looks, at least ideologically, like the Justices whom the social right holds up as model Supreme Court Justices: Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito. These Justices are all intensely smart, engage in outstanding scholarship, and with very few exceptions reach socially conservative results to their reasoning in nearly any case where a social issue is raised — even if their paths sometimes deviate from one another along the way. Whether such a nominee also pleases President Romney will be irrelevant.
Now, there is reason to question the veracity of the story about then-Governor-elect Romney reaching out to women when he found applications for cabinet-level positions to be too overwhelmingly male for at least some facet of his tastes. A little bit of exaggeration, a little bit of selective memory, a little bit of spin, and a whole of coaching and refinement during debate preparation — soon enough it becomes hard to tell a lie from something more innocuous. That’s not a particular indictment of Romney’s honesty since that’s something inherent in an elaborate candidacy.
Still, Romney’s brag about having the most gender-inclusive cabinet of any Governor may not be exactly true so much as just plain incorrect, depending on what you count as “senior staff.” And the binders in question may well have been prepared by a third-party entity before the election even took place, and available to the incoming administration ab initio, rather than having been the result of an outreach directive made by Romney personally. Maybe.
Wherever last night’s “binders” statement is placed on the continuum between the rock-solid verifiable objective truth on one end and a brazen intentional deception on the other, it does reveal what Romney wants us to believe about him. I’ve little doubt that Romney does have a strong suite of executive skills at his disposal — a good sense for how money works, an understanding of how to delegate and coordinate tasks, and a grasp of the methods by which policies are fashioned and implemented both in business and governmental settings.
But just like the reality of the story may not be as good as the legend, the reality of his executive skill set may not match its legend, either. This revelation about something he probably really thinks he did, and something that he probably really thinks he ought to be proud of himself for doing, tells me that some of the executive skills I’ve thought he had great strength in may not be as strong as I’d previously thought.