The leading contenders for the Republican nomination for president tell us three interesting things about America.
First, many Republican voters are so disenchanted they’re willing to entrust the country to candidates – Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina – with zero experience in elective office or military command. Only two men without previous time in major elective office or the military have been president, Herbert Hoover and William Howard Taft, and both had held Cabinet posts. No president has ever been as inexperienced as any of these three leading Republican candidates.
Second, the public feels an odd awe for CEOs and presumes they know how to run things, even if their records suggest otherwise. This cultural reverence for CEOs perhaps also explains why pay packages have increased – and why Fiorina was allowed to take home a $21 million severance package after she was fired as Hewlett-Packard’s chief executive for incompetence.
Third, the only kind of welfare that carries no stigma in America is corporate welfare. For all Trump’s criticisms of government, his family wealth came from feeding at the government trough. His father, Fred Trump, leveraged government housing programs into a construction business; the empire was founded on public money.
My bet is that Trump, Fiorina and Carson will fade and that voters will eventually turn to a more conventional candidate, perhaps Sen. Marco Rubio. From the Democrats’ point of view, the scariest Republican ticket might pair Rubio with John Kasich.
Rubio has natural political skills, projects youth and change, and would signal that the Republican Party is ready to expand its demographic base. Rubio and Kasich would also have a decent chance of winning their home states, Florida and Ohio – and any ticket that could win Florida and Ohio would be a strong contender.
But instead, Republican primary voters for now are pursuing a bizarre flirtation with three candidates who are the least qualified since, well, maybe since Trump put his toe in the waters before the 2000 election.
In that sense, they offer a window into the American psyche – part of which is our adulation of the CEO.
There’s something to be said for CEOs’ entering politics: In theory, they have management expertise and financial savvy. Then again, it didn’t work so well with Dick Cheney.
More broadly, the United States has overdone the cult of the CEO, partly explaining why at the largest companies the ratio of CEO compensation to typical worker pay rose from 20 to 1 in 1965 to 303 to 1 in 2014, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
In any case, even if you were conducting a job search for a great CEO to lead the free world, you wouldn’t turn to either Trump or Fiorina.
My sense is that Trump isn’t the idiot that critics often claim (the most common words voters used to describe him in a recent poll were “idiot,” “jerk,” “stupid” and “dumb”). This is a man who is near the top of diverse fields: real estate, book writing, television and now presidential politics. He’s a born showman, a master of branding and marketing. But he doesn’t seem a master of investing.
Back in 1976, Trump said he was worth “more than $200 million.” If he had simply put $200 million in an index fund and reinvested dividends, he would be worth $12 billion today, notes Max Ehrenfreund of The Washington Post. In fact, he’s worth $4.5 billion, according to Forbes.
In other words, Trump’s business acumen seems less than half as impressive as that of an ordinary Joe who parks his savings in an index fund.
An index fund might also have been less ethically problematic. In the 1970s, the Justice Department accused Trump of refusing to rent to blacks. And in 2013, New York state’s attorney general sued him, alleging “persistent fraudulent, illegal and deceptive conduct”; Trump denied the charges.
If Trump’s performance as a business executive was problematic, Fiorina’s was exceptional. Exceptionally bad.
Put aside the fact that she’s the CEO who fired thousands of workers while raking in more than $100 million in compensation and pushing HP to acquire five corporate jets. Just looking at the bottom line, she earned her place on those “worst CEO” lists she appeared on.
As Steven Rattner wrote in The Times, Hewlett-Packard’s share price fell 52 percent in the nearly six years she was at the helm. HP did worse than its peers: IBM fell 27.5 percent, and Dell, 3 percent.
Oh, and on the day she was fired, the stock market celebrated: HP shares soared 7 percent.
If I wanted a circus ringmaster, I’d hire Trump. If I wanted advice on brain surgery or hospital management, I’d turn to Carson. Fiorina would make an articulate television pundit. But for president?
The fact that these tyros are the three leading presidential contenders for a major political party is a sad window into our political dysfunction.
Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.