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Nothing captures the artifice of election year politics quite like the rush of policy experts who attach themselves to presidential campaigns every four years. Star economists, foreign policy grandees, and respected lawmakers lend their gravitas and intellectual credentials to a nominee’s policy platform. Most of them wind up getting little face time with the candidate and find their ideas marginalized by political pros fixated on securing 270 electoral votes—not the intricacies of net neutrality and fracking regulations.
So imagine what it’s like to be an economic adviser for Mitt Romney right about now. Among the financial and business luminaries helping the campaign are R. Glenn Hubbard, dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business, and Harvard University’s N. Gregory Mankiw, both economists who headed the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush. Rounding out the team are former Missouri Senator Jim Talent and onetime Minnesota Representative Vin Weber, now Republican lobbyists.(Weber is a member of Bloomberg Government’s Advisory Board.) There’s plenty of career-boosting cachet for these unpaid advisers—and maybe even a plum job should Romney prevail. Yet trying to school the candidate on economics can be challenging. He’s got a gold-plated résumé of his own (Bain Capital co-founder, Harvard business and law degrees) and opinions based on decades of experience. “Given what he’s done in the business world, he knows what he believes works,” says Andrew Puzder, chief executive officer of Carpinteria (Calif.)-based CKE Restaurants, who helped craft Romney’s business-regulation policy. “And sometimes he knows better than the policy team.”
In policy briefings, Romney peppers his experts with detailed questions, and sessions can end with Romney and his campaign aides overruling the wonks, particularly when it comes to politically sensitive topics, according to one adviser who attended the meetings but was not authorized to speak publicly. When Romney released his tax plan, he limited a proposed elimination of capital gains taxes on people with incomes up to $200,000—a cap designed to deflect criticism that his policies favor the rich. Hubbard and Mankiw think that ceiling is far too low, says one adviser who wasn’t authorized to comment on internal deliberations and asked not to be named. The same adviser says all of Romney’s top advisers disagreed with the candidate’s vow to take a harder line on China with new tariffs and an official designation as a “currency manipulator.”
Mankiw and Hubbard have called for the Federal Reserve to ease monetary policies and reduce interest rates to strengthen the housing market. Romney thinks the real estate market needs to hit bottom with no government interference. Hubbard says he won’t comment on personal conversations with Romney, adding it’s a “good thing” the candidate doesn’t always agree with advisers. Mankiw declined to comment. Romney frequently goes outside his policy team for input, consulting with a wide network of friends and ex-colleagues such as former Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) CEO Meg Whitman.
Those who’ve advised past presidential candidates say being ignored just goes with the job. Arizona Senator John McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war widely respected for his foreign policy expertise, had 75 experts advising him on international issues, and 36 economic advisers during his 2008 presidential run. Political strategy at times trumped policy innovation. “It’s very hard sometimes to realize that although you may think this is a wonderful thing and you’ve worked out every detail from an economics point of view, from a political point of view it may be a no-go,” says John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo (WFC), who worked on McCain’s economic policy team.
Likewise, when Bill Clinton began his first presidential bid, he held a series of marathon meetings with foreign policy experts. “It’s the illusion of inclusion,” says Sandy Berger, a national security adviser in Clinton’s administration. “You want to engage as many people as you possibly can in the campaign so they feel as if they are participating, even if their advice is filed in a trash can.”
Senator John Kerry spoke with his team of foreign policy experts only a handful of times during his 2004 presidential campaign. Instead, says Kerry foreign policy adviser Leslie Gelb, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman sought counsel from colleagues such as Joe Biden.
The papers, e-mails, and talking points painstakingly crafted by outside experts rarely make it beyond lower-level aides, in part because what campaigns really need are slogans—not detailed policy, says Gelb, now president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. “They always said they read the papers but they clearly never read them,” he says. So why do so many smart and accomplished people put up with such indignities? “The capacity to delude yourself about influence when you think there’s a high-level job waiting is very high,” said Gelb. “But the main point is for political show.”
The bottom line: Every four years experts gravitate to presidential campaigns for the prestige, but their advice often gets ignored in the heat of campaigning.