It’s called “Transaction Man,” and the first half of it (approximately) is just about what you’d expect, although with a milder tone than the more fire-breathing writers on the left employ. The usual bases are covered: the bane of Bain, the 47% remark, Romney’s atypically privileged youth, the otherness of Mormons, and his abysmal failure to fire up crowds (the article was written before the debate). But then it abruptly veers into other territory, and that’s when it becomes quite different from anything else I’ve ever read about Romney.
Lemann decided to interview the candidate (this occurs on page 7 of the 11-page article), and most of the rest of the piece merely reports what Romney said in response. Lemann explains:
Because Romney’s answers to the standard political questions are usually scripted and unrevealing, I asked him about business. Why had General Motors, the economic titan of his youth, fallen so low?
It turned out to be an inspired decision on Lemann’s part. Romney is off and running—as Lemann writes:
Romney clearly loved talking about this, and he was showing how he thinks about running things, including the federal government.
The answers are not only interesting and highly intelligent, they’re intelligent in an unusual way, especially for a politician (this is probably because Romney is not primarily a politician). The contrast between Obama and Romney could not be more stark; I would describe it as insubstantial abstraction coupled with emotional appeals versus solution-focused pragmatism grounded in concrete experience.
I also got the impression that Lemann himself had trouble reconciling his own liberalism with his actual experience of Romney when he talked to him one on one. I would go so far as to say he liked and respected him, and was even impressed by him. I’m putting words into Lemann’s mouth, though; he doesn’t really say that, he just backs off from saying much of anything, except that Romney has trouble conveying his ideas to large crowds as effectively as in this more personal venue.
I’ll excerpt a little of what Romney said, just to give you an idea of its flavor:
[Romney] led into a discussion of politics by talking about the strategic myopia of many business executives. “They agree to actions which are good on a short-term basis but may be more hazardous long term. And so, for instance, if you’re the chief executive officer of General Motors back in the nineteen-seventies and a contract comes forward which has onerous legacy costs, why, you know that those costs are not going to be borne on your term, because it’s going to be done for future retirees. And so you might agree to something that is harmful to the company long term but, by the way, beneficial short term, because who wants to take a strike, to prevent a provision that’s going to hurt ten years or twenty years down the road?
“This is particularly true, by the way, in politics,” he went on, “where politicians regularly agree to huge contracts with back-end-loaded benefits, and the day of reckoning finally comes, but they’re long gone.” He allowed a hint of sarcasm to creep into his voice. “While they were there, everything was great. But look at the contracts they entered into!”
I asked whether it was possible to run the vast, diffuse American government the way you would run a business. “The private sector is less forgiving,” he said. “If you make serious mistakes in the private sector, you’ll lose your job, or, if you’re in a position of responsibility, you might lose other people’s jobs. In politics, politicians make mistakes all the time and blame their opposition, or borrow more money, or raise taxes to pay for their mistake. In the business world, the ability to speak fast and convincingly is of very little value. I remember the first time I met Jack Welch. I expected him to be a super-salesman. Instead, he spoke quietly, somewhat haltingly, but brilliantly. Stuff matters a lot more than fluff in the private sector.”
Red the whole thing—or at least read from page seven till the end. You’ll get a much better idea than you had before of the type of mind Romney has.