Do CEOs Make Good Politicians?

Renee Montagne talks with Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik about why he feels CEOs make "terrible" politicians.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This week, several former CEOs added their names to the long list of people who did well in business, and then failed in politics. Candidates Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina here in California, and Linda McMahon in Connecticut, didn't catch the national Republican wave, even though they spent tens of millions of dollars of their own money to run.

As business columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Michael Hiltzik has been mulling over why these high-profile businesswomen lost so badly. And he joined us.

Good morning.

Mr. MICHAEL HILTZIK (Los Angeles Times): Good morning.

INSKEEP: What makes it so hard to trade the corner office for elected office?

Mr. HILTZIK: Well, clearly there are a lot of skills that are important when you are a corporate CEO that are not important when you are running for political office. And there are a lot of skills you need to be a political leader that don't come into play when you're running a major corporation.

MONTAGNE: Right. But of course, those who try to make this transfer from business to politics say that the very skills that they have are needed. For instance, Meg Whitman here proclaimed that she would run California like a business.

Mr. HILTZIK: The flaw in that reasoning is that government is not a business. And I think the claim that she tried to exercise on the public consciousness was that she was an efficient operator, an efficient manager, and somebody who could squeeze all of these efficiencies out of government and would run it as a business. That's not a theme that really is appealing to a lot of voters, because they do understand that there are things government does that are special, and that don't really lend themselves to really tough, harsh management.

INSKEEP: Is there also a personality type that works in politics that wouldnt work in the boardroom?

Mr. HILTZIK: Well, I think what we've seen in this latest crop of CEO candidates is that a lot of them seem to lack empathy - empathy with the voters, empathy with the middle class. Each one of them had moments in their campaigns when they were confronted with the need to show that they understood the travails of the average person, and they failed to really do so.

MONTAGNE: You know, here in California, Carly Fiorina failed in her bid against Barbara Boxer, a longtime senator. Meg Whitman lost to Jerry Brown, who's been a governor before - 30 years ago. Is it possible to say in this election year that the only thing worse than an incumbent longtime politician is a top businessperson?

Mr. HILTZIK: Well, I think one of the elements of both of those races is that these were CEOs who actually had no record at all of public service. Even Herbert Hoover, who ran for president as his first election, and was a businessman, he had had a long history of public service. Neither Meg Whitman nor Carly Fiorina had anything like that. They had come out of business; they had no record of serving in government, even in an advisory capacity. In fact, both of them had a problem in that they had been shown not to have voted for many, many years.

MONTAGNE: Well, just finally, there are business people and CEOs, financiers, who have in fact bucked this trend - in Wisconsin, plastics magnate Ron Johnson won a Senate seat this week; Michael Bloomberg, very successful mayor of New York, among a handful. How did they manage to avoid the fate of these other CEOs?

Mr. HILTZIK: Well, theyve proven to be very effective as political leaders. But it happens to be a short list. I mean, once you get to Michael Bloomberg, John Corzine, who was governor and senator from New Jersey, then you have to go back and look at George Romney, Mitt Romney's father, who had a very successful career as a governor of Michigan and had been chairman of an auto company. But once you get beyond that, you can see that there really are problems for business leaders in making the transition.

MONTAGNE: Michael Hiltzik is a business columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

Thanks very much.

Mr. HILTZIK: Youre welcome.

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