April 23, 2018
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Businessmen make bad governors

By Roger Bowen, Special to the BDN

Gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage is a classic American success story, but that is no reason to support his candidacy for governor. You can admire his determined rise from poverty, his self-financed education, his rise into the senior administrative ranks at Marden’s, and his political successes in Waterville. You can also choose to overlook his periodic angry outbursts.

But at the same time, there are good reasons not to support his gubernatorial bid. A recent editorial by the conservative newsmagazine The Economist hints at one of these reasons.

“A striking number of businesspeople prove to be failures as politicians. Paul O’Neill was one of Alcoa’s most successful bosses,” the magazine says. “But, as Mr. Bush’s first treasury secretary, he was rapidly reduced to a laughing-stock. Ross Perot turned electronic Data Systems into a giant. But his two runs for the presidency left most Americans with the impression that his tray table is not in the fully upright and locked position. Donald Rumsfeld was a successful boss of two big companies. But his name is synonymous with one of the worst-managed wars in American history.”

The problem with business people who become politicians is their inability to make the cultural shift from the top-down world of business to the messy political world. Issuing fiats may work for business leaders, but in democracy success requires its leaders to engage in compromise, demonstrate empathy and respect the choices of those who disagree with your positions and policies. The business “mentality” is no-nonsense, while politics is almost by definition senseless, based as much on perception, the politician’s own as well as the public’s which judges its governors, as it is on reason.

An example of the senselessness of politics: logic would dictate that the millions of low income Americans, those underinsured, uninsured, on Medicare and Medicaid, would embrace single-payer health care reform because as the most vulnerable they stand to benefit the most. Yet, instead they appear among the first to decry a “government takeover,” even to the point of the elderly among them warning their benefactor, the federal government, “Do not touch my Medicare!”

That sort of illogic has no place in the business world. Business makes decisions based largely on cold cost-benefit analyses with both eyes of the CEO focused on maximizing profit. Self-interest, individual and corporate, is the driving force behind business decisions, while in the political world the self-interest of politicians is about satisfying the interests of others — making voters happy by championing programs that enrich the wider society, often at the expense of the wealthy, whether individuals or corporations. The “greatest good for the greatest number” is a utilitarian political calculus that often makes little sense to the rugged individualistic culture that illuminates the business world.

LePage is a businessman and a proud rugged individualist. He is who he is because of what he and he alone has done in his prior life. He seems to feel that he has earned his every success based solely on his own meritorious actions, and owes little or nothing to those around him. If he does in fact stand on the shoulders of people who have helped him earlier in his life, he seems unwilling to acknowledge those debts.

That outlook is just not the one needed by Maine where, the myth of Yankee individualism notwithstanding, mutual support and generosity toward neighbors as well as strangers is and has been the hallmark of Maine culture. Maine needs a governor who understands the illogic of politics, the messiness of democracy, and the chaos produced by compromise. Maine does not need a self-made businessman who believes that the business of government is business.

Roger Bowen is a political scientist who lives in Prospect Harbor.

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