At MaryAnn’s, Romney, his suit jacket removed and his sleeves rolled up, made his way swiftly through the restaurant, methodically quizzing the patrons. He sat down with two gray-haired women in a booth and pointed to a creamy drink on the table. “Is this a malt or is this a milkshake?” he asked.
“It’s a frappe,” one of the women replied.
“We call that a milkshake in the Midwest,” Romney, who has lived in Massachusetts for the past thirty-six years, said. “It’s a frappe here, right? This is ice cream and, and—”
“And milk,” the woman replied.
“And milk, yeah. How are you doing? I’m Mitt Romney.”
Romney is smart. He was chosen as the speaker for his graduating class at Brigham Young University. He pursued joint graduate degrees at Harvard, in law and business, graduating cum laude in law and in the top five per cent of his class at the business school. “I like smart people,” he wrote in “Turnaround.” “A lot.” But, like many smart overachievers, especially in politics, he sometimes tries a little too hard. The conversation turned from frappes to health care, and he asked, “Is it O.K. here in New Hampshire?”
“I live in Vermont,” one of the women responded.
“I live in Massachusetts,” the other said.
Undaunted, Romney cheerily pressed for their views on how to improve the health-care system. One of the women made a pitch for more government spending on care for the elderly. The poor, she argued, benefit from government programs, and the rich can afford their own care. “I think the middle people need some help.” Romney perked up and patiently explained the details of a 2004 law that provided more state assistance for home care. His new friends were smitten. “That’s a nice idea,” one of them said. Romney did not mention that the new rules applied only to the poor.
Romney walked into a room decorated with posters of fifties icons. He stood before Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe and chatted with a table of patrons finishing plates of home fries and eggs. Suddenly, a heavyset man wearing a bright-orange cap entered the room. “Mr. Romney,” he called out. “Eric Orff—I’m a hunter.” It was a potentially awkward moment. Earlier this year, Romney claimed that he’d “been a hunter pretty much all my life.” A few days later, he said in a statement, “I’ve hunted small game numerous times.” Four days after that, Romney told W. Gardner Selby, of the Austin American-Statesman, “Any description of my being a hunter is an overstatement of capability.”
Still, he couldn’t resist. “You’re a hunter?” he said to Orff. “Well, same here. Good to see ya.” Orff had a question about the environment: “It’s eighty degrees today. What are we going to do about global warming?” Romney’s response was quick and concise. “We’re going to get ourselves off of foreign oil,” he said. “And to do that it’s going to take nuclear power, clean coal, more efficient vehicles, and then we’re going to dramatically reduce our greenhouse gases.” It was a good answer, but also a strange one. Not long ago, Romney released a glossy pamphlet detailing his positions on major issues. He sounded like Al Gore when talking to the environmentalist in New Hampshire, though his policy book’s treatment of global warming reads more like something from ExxonMobil. In it, Romney refers to the “debate” over “how much human activity impacts the environment”—code words for the global-warming-denial crowd. He offers no plan to “dramatically” curtail emissions of CO2, just an aside that “we may well be able to rein in our greenhouse-gas emissions.” As the governor of Massachusetts, Romney, in December, 2005, pulled out of a Northeast-state agreement on carbon reduction—a plan that he had supported the month before.
This is a habit of Romney’s. Politicians tend to pander, especially during the primary season. Romney’s chief opponent, Rudy Giuliani, also has a history as a pro-gun-control, pro-gay-rights Republican. But while Giuliani simply downplays his record on those issues, Romney sells himself as a true convert. He not only shifts positions; he often claims to be the most passionate advocate of his new stances. It’s one of the reasons that his metamorphosis from liberal Republican to committed right-winger seems so jarring. In 1994, in his race for the Senate, he didn’t simply argue that he was a defender of gay rights; he claimed to be a stronger advocate than his opponent, Edward Kennedy. Today, he’s not just a faithful conservative but the only Republican candidate who represents “the Republican wing of the Republican Party.” He brings a salesman’s bravado and certainty to issues. At a debate in May, when asked how he would respond to a hypothetical situation involving the interrogation of a terrorist at Guantánamo Bay, he said, “Some people have said we ought to close Guantánamo. My view is that we ought to double Guantánamo.” Elected as a pro-choice governor in 2002—YouTube is flooded with his passionate advocacy of abortion rights—he now presents himself as the most resolute anti-abortion candidate in the Republican field. A Mormon, he sometimes adopts the religious language of Evangelicals when he is addressing conservative Christian groups. To economic conservatives, he pitches himself as the candidate most strongly committed to slashing spending and taxes. (He’s the only major G.O.P. candidate to have signed a formal anti-tax pledge, the sort of move that his spokesman dismissed as “government by gimmickry” in Romney’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign.) To national-security conservatives, he is the most hawkish. (He says often that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, of Iran, should be indicted under the Genocide Convention, and his campaign has named the former C.I.A. counterterrorism chief, Cofer Black, the vice-chairman of Blackwater, as an adviser.) But, while giving customers exactly what they want may be normal in the corporate world, it can be costly in politics.
Romney’s transition from the boardroom to the campaign trail has been clumsy in other respects, too. According to “Turnaround,” at Bain Capital, the investment firm that Romney headed, the partners suspected that their boss fostered a cutthroat competitive environment in order to motivate them. When he greets voters, this competitiveness often surfaces as posturing; chitchat turns into one-upmanship. After a voter at the New Hampshire diner told Romney, “My daughter goes to Michigan State,” he replied, “Oh, does she, really? My brother’s on the board of Michigan State.” When another patron said that she was from Illinois, Romney told her, “I won the straw poll at the Illinois Republican convention!” Romney’s most seemingly innocuous comments can be head-scratchers. Later that afternoon, standing next to a local supporter who had escorted him to several Derry businesses, Romney told reporters, “Now I understand why I’m going to be gaining a couple of pounds with him, because we’ve eaten everywhere we’ve gone, almost.” Romney, a fitness buff who is shown jogging in a recent campaign ad, had about half a frappe at the diner (he threw the rest away) and a cookie at a bakery—nothing at an Italian restaurant, a feed store, a scrapbook shop, or a hardware store. Whatever gene causes hyper-competitive perfectionists always to go one step beyond their adversaries, or anyone else, Romney has it. Republican candidates inevitably criticize, with some accuracy, Democratic proposals on health care or taxes as being closer to the way things are done in Europe. Earlier in the day, before a crowd of New Hampshire college students, Romney said that the policies of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards were similar to those of a Communist dictatorship. Their ideas, he said pointedly, “didn’t work for the Soviet Union.”
Most explorers searching for the philosophical roots of Mitt Romney begin the journey with his religion. Mormonism is a major factor in the campaign, even if it is rarely mentioned by Romney’s opponents. “I think the Mormon issue is a real problem in the South, and it’s a real problem in other parts of the country, but people are not going to say it,” Dan Bartlett, President Bush’s former counsellor, said in a recent speech. “People are not going to step out and say, ‘I have a problem with Romney because he’s Mormon.’ What they’re going to say is he is a flip-flopper.” Given the importance to the Republican Party of Evangelical Christians—especially Southern Baptists, who have traditionally been hostile to Mormonism—the Romney campaign is understandably concerned about the attention that reporters pay to his religion. Romney’s senior aides were unsettled by a recent Newsweek cover story that dwelled on Romney’s relationship to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as the Mormon Church is officially known. “I thought it was unfortunate that every aspect of the Governor’s life was presented through the prism of religion,” Kevin Madden, Romney’s press secretary, told me. Romney himself, irked by Newsweek’s argument that he was distancing himself from Mormonism, wrote to the magazine, saying, “I am an American running for president, not a Mormon running for president, but I am also very proud of my faith.” He added, “It is puzzling that when Newsweek looks at me what you mostly see is a Mormon.” Romney sometimes faces hostile questions about his religion. At a recent “Ask Mitt Anything” event in Orange, California, a young man asked, “If you were elected President, how many First Ladies could we expect?” The audience gasped, but Romney remained unflustered and advised the questioner to consult the L.D.S. Web site.
In private, a Romney aide frankly conceded that, aside from accusations of “flip-flopping,” his greatest political liability is his religion, which is unfamiliar to most Americans. Jan Shipps, a leading non-Mormon scholar of Mormonism, said that it was useful to consider the difference between Romney and Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, who holds the highest government post of any Mormon in American history. “Reid is a Church member,” Shipps said. “But he is a convert. I’m sure he’s devoted, I’m sure he’s a tithe-paying member and all of that”—devout Mormons contribute ten per cent of their earnings to the Church—“but he was not born into the Church. He didn’t get Mormonism with his mother’s milk, as it were. But Romney is a sixth-generation Mormon”—what scholars call a DNA Mormon. “His ancestors were some of the very first converts.”
Romney’s ancestors had important roles at every turning point in the Mormons’ dramatic nineteenth-century history. Mormonism was founded in western New York, in 1830, by Joseph Smith, after he claimed to have been visited by an angel who directed him to gold plates with inscriptions, which he “translated” into the Book of Mormon. In the eighteen-forties, Romney’s forefathers were present in Nauvoo, Illinois, a settlement established by Smith. After Smith’s murder, in 1844, which forced many persecuted Mormons to move westward, it was Mitt Romney’s great-great-grandfather who first explored the mountain pass leading down to the Salt Lake Valley, according to “Turnaround.” When, in the eighteen-nineties, the federal government cracked down on polygamy, again scattering Mormon families, Romney’s great-grandfather, who had five wives, was among those who fled to Mexico, where Romney’s father, George, was born, in 1907.
By the time Romney was a teen-ager—he was born in 1947—the Church had shifted toward growth by conversion, a change that reinforced the uniqueness of the ancestral Mormons. In addition, George Romney, who grew up in Mormon strongholds in Idaho and Utah, brought up his family in Michigan, where he was the chairman and president of the American Motors Corporation, a small, aggressive competitor of the Big Three, and, later, a three-term governor of the state. Mitt Romney grew up in Bloomfield Hills, a Detroit suburb, where he was the only Mormon in his school. Dane McBride, now a Virginia physician, met Romney in 1966, while both were serving in France as missionaries. Afterward, Romney and McBride attended Brigham Young University together. Like Romney, McBride attended schools where he was one of very few Mormons. “Mitt and I, because of that, were much more experienced in explaining and defending our religion,” McBride told me. “We also grew up feeling that there was a little bit of a difference between us and our friends.”
Many commentators have suggested that Romney will need to make a speech akin to the one that John F. Kennedy gave in 1960 to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, in which he promised to resign if there was ever a collision between his beliefs as a Catholic and the national interest. Jan Shipps is skeptical of the idea that Romney could do something similar. “Mormonism was a cult, just as Christianity was a cult in the beginning,” she told me. “But a cult, when it grows up, becomes a culture, and the people who are a part of it take on an ethnic identity, a peoplehood. Romney is not Mormon the way, say, Ted Kennedy is Catholic. Romney is Mormon the way Ted Kennedy is Irish. That’s the difference. And, when it’s that much a part of who you are, it’s very hard to explain it to other people, because you can’t figure out why they can’t see it. He can’t do a J.F.K., because when J.F.K. did his thing on the Catholics there were people who knew that they were afraid of Catholicism, but at least they knew what it was.”
Romney’s cultural Mormonism is in some ways more important to understanding him than his theological Mormonism. As governor, after all, Romney had a history of supporting positions that were at odds with the practices of the Church. He has opposed cigarette taxes and loosened restrictions on alcohol sales, even though the L.D.S. strongly discourages its members from smoking and drinking. He has also opposed some forms of stem-cell research, even though the Church has no quarrel with such experiments. (Senator Orrin Hatch, of Utah, also a Mormon, is a prominent proponent of the research.) Romney grew up in an era when the Mormon Church was growing rapidly, and this forced it to start thinking like a corporation. It became what has been called a “franchise religion,” and its leadership in Salt Lake City instituted a process of “correlation,” which standardized Church teachings and missions around the world. In 1974, the Church even had a team of management consultants help restructure some of its operations. Romney was chosen for a leadership position during his mission in France, and was a leader of local Mormons in Massachusetts. “Gifted men who are Latter-Day Saints start getting assignments as administrators when they go on their mission,” Shipps said. “And those assignments continue—from being in charge of people on this mission to eventually being in charge of a ward, which is like a parish. They have to administer that, and then they have to administer what is essentially a diocese. They learn administration in particular ways.” In that sense, Romney may have learned as much about management from Mormonism as he did about religion.
According to McBride, one of the most important reading assignments Romney had as a missionary was the 1937 best-seller “Think and Grow Rich,” by Napoleon Hill. Hill, the Stephen Covey of his era, essentially invented the personal-success genre, and his advice about the importance of persistence and organized planning would have been particularly useful to an American Mormon trying to convert French Catholics. During a visit to Romney’s mission, Howard W. Hunter, a member of the Church’s Quorum of Twelve Apostles and later the president of the Church, advised Romney and his colleagues to study Hill’s book. “I want you to understand, the Lord does not care whether you become rich or not, but he does want you to learn how to succeed, and to be successful,” he told them. The can-do spirit of an achievement expert, like Hill, is highly compatible with Mormon religious teaching. There is no original sin and no predestination in Mormonism. It is a religion that preaches optimistic assumptions about human nature, including the premise that humans can become like God in the afterlife, which may help explain its increasing worldwide appeal. In a recent essay in the Christian Century, the religious historian Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp noted that, unlike earlier branches of Christianity, in Mormonism “healthy living and moral values are extolled not simply as exercises in discipline, but as keys to individual progress.” She added, “The language that the L.D.S. Church uses to discuss child-rearing focuses less on preventing sin and avoiding temptation and more on personal cultivation.” According to McBride, he and Romney became diligent students of “Think and Grow Rich.” “We read it, we studied it, we discussed it together—we were into it,” he told me. “It wasn’t Romney’s Bible through life or something like that, but those were concepts and ideas that we got early on, and they did have an impact on us and we did study it, and it became a part of our mentality.”
In late September, Mitt Romney spoke before an audience in a banquet room in Santa Clara, California, within walking distance of high-tech firms like Yahoo, Nortel, and A.M.D. Wearing a blue suit and tie, a gold watch on his wrist, and product in his hair, he never moved from center stage, where an American flag helped frame him for his camera shots. He held a microphone with four fingertips and a thumb and rotated his torso a hundred and eighty degrees every five seconds or so, like a human garden sprinkler. This was his kind of crowd. The event was organized by the local chamber of commerce, and the questions were about entitlements, technology, education, and immigration. The man seated next to me was the president of the Silicon Valley chapter of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. At this forum, no one asked Romney about abortion or religion.
One person wanted to know if there was any difference between Romney’s background and that of his opponents. “Is there anything in my background that’s not different than my opponents?” Romney answered. He went on to relate an anecdote from his days as a management consultant: “I spent my life in the private sector. I spent twenty-five years in business, some high-tech, some low-tech. I remember one of my first consulting assignments—someone came and said they’d taken a piece of glass, about eighteen inches long, and they’d stretched it to a kilometre long. And they’d shone a light through it. That was an optical wave gatherer, they called it. And now we call it fibre optic. And we were hired to find a strategy for Corning to take advantage of this technology.” Romney is as keen to talk about his business background as he is reluctant to talk about his religious background. He has said that his experience as a young management consultant is what helped prepare him for government service.
Romney would be both the first Mormon President and the first President to come from the world of consulting. The profession, whose roots are in the scientific-management fad of the nineteen-twenties, has only recently begun to produce its first generation of political leaders. Benjamin Netanyahu is an alumnus of the Boston Consulting Group, where Romney started out, and William Hague, the former Tory leader, got his first job at McKinsey & Company. In the United States, the growing reputation of consulting as the “it” profession for the American élite got a recent endorsement when Chelsea Clinton decided to join McKinsey rather than pursue a law degree, as her parents did.
Romney joined the Boston Consulting Group in 1975, after graduating from Harvard Business School. The firm had been founded by a former Bible salesman named Bruce Henderson, one of the industry’s conceptual pioneers. In the insular world of consulting, B.C.G. had a reputation as the intellectual shop, seen not just as a hands-on consultancy but also as a think tank, and it popularized the concept of business strategy, or organizing a company around its goals—an idea that swept boardrooms in the seventies. “B.C.G.’s idea was: We don’t need to understand your industry; we need to understand a few important principles that we can apply to all of our clients,” Christopher McKenna, the author of “The World’s Newest Profession,” a history of the consulting industry, told me. B.C.G., using a toolbox of concepts that its people had come up with—“the experience curve,” “the strategic business unit,” and “the growth-share matrix”—helped reinvent the way its clients did business. Its big idea was the experience curve—over time, unit cost decreases as experience increases. Romney spent almost four years at B.C.G. applying these principles.
The year before Romney joined B.C.G., William Bain, one of the company’s stars, had left to start his own firm, Bain & Company, which he promised would be a radical new consulting business. If B.C.G. was like an ivory tower, Bain was a trade school. The tradition best exemplified by McKinsey, one of the oldest firms, had consultants acting like pollinating bees, moving valuable information from one company to another, even within the same industry. Much of what you paid for as a C.E.O. was the expertise that McKinsey had lifted from your rivals. “It was a conduit for the transfer of knowledge,” McKenna told me. “You paid McKinsey an entry fee to do this for you.” Bain’s idea was to create a more exclusive and mutually beneficial arrangement with his clients. He promised not to work for the competition, and, instead of simply devising a new strategy, he would stick around and help implement it. It was the difference between belonging to a gym and having a personal trainer.
Bain also demanded that his consultants work with top-level management, so that decisions could be executed quickly. The approach “was revolutionary,” said Bob White, a Bain alumnus and a longtime Romney friend, who is now the chairman of the Romney campaign. In 1977, Romney joined the Bain team as part of a second wave of consultants who left the Boston Consulting Group. By 1978, Fortune had declared consulting “the current glamour industry for the newest M.B.A.s,” and noted that Harvard graduates were moving into management consulting at a record pace.
Bain’s brand of “relationship consulting” bred a unique culture at the company’s headquarters, in Copley Square. Since Bain didn’t work for business rivals, companies were more willing to share sensitive data. It was there that Romney developed his passion for collecting huge amounts of information. The company soon earned a reputation for extreme secrecy—it was dubbed the K.G.B. of management consulting. It’s been reported that, initially, employees didn’t use business cards, and they spoke in code when discussing clients in public. According to a study conducted by Stanford Graduate School of Business, Bain had a “strict policy forbidding interaction with the press.” It adopted what was called a “one-firm” culture. Employees read “Dress for Success” and were sent on Outward Bound-style leadership retreats. Business reporters wondered why Bain consultants all seemed to wear the same red ties. Romney and his colleagues were called Bainies, and, not surprisingly, there were accounts of insufferable young Bainies swarming into a company and confidently reorganizing it as middle managers were brushed aside. As the consulting business grew, competition for the brightest M.B.A.s intensified, and Bain became an aggressive recruiter. Harvard once kicked the company off campus, temporarily, because the firm offered graduates “exploding bonuses,” payments that declined each day the student dithered about a decision to join Bain.
William Bain believed that he could extract more value from the firms he advised by investing in them. In 1984, he chose Romney, by then one of his top consultants, to launch Bain Capital, a private equity firm that bought up companies, mostly through leveraged buyouts. Applying Bain’s patented techniques, they sometimes expanded the companies they bought and at other times they downsized them, but they almost always made a profit. By the time Romney ran for the Senate, in 1994, it is estimated that he was worth several hundred million dollars.
Romney has said that his training as a management consultant taught him a methodology for problem-solving. He told the conservative author and talk-show host Hugh Hewitt that the conceptual tools he had picked up in the business world gave him the confidence to walk into a C.E.O.’s office and offer advice on an industry with which he was unfamiliar. “You’re going to get data that they have but have never analyzed in the proper way, and then you’re going to tear it apart and debate it amongst yourselves and with them and find new and bold answers,” he told Hewitt. Ever since Romney moved into the political profession—starting with his failed Senate run—a great question has been whether this is a transferrable skill.
Romney’s business background wasn’t enough to beat Kennedy, who turned it into a liability by highlighting stories about companies that were downsized after Bain takeovers. Soon after that loss, Romney began looking for a public platform to showcase his talents. In 1999, he took over the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the Olympic Winter Games of 2002, which was then mired in a bribery scandal. The tainted officials had been ousted, but a significant financial problem had emerged: there was a projected budget deficit of three hundred and eighty-seven million dollars. Romney cut costs, raised money, and successfully lobbied the federal government to allocate more funds for the Winter Olympics. By all accounts, he was an extremely competent manager of the enterprise, and his public cheerleading for the games refurbished their reputation. Harvard Business School has taught Romney’s turnaround of the Olympics as a case study. The study, written by the Business School professor H. Kent Bowen, is filled with detailed charts, complicated matrixes, and screen shots from software that Romney and his chief operating officer, Fraser Bullock, used to track their progress as they reorganized the committee. One exhibit from early 2001 offers a glimpse into the limits of the management-consultant world view: a list of twenty-eight “potential risk factors,” which are divided into three tiers based on their probability and impact. No. 28, at the bottom of Tier 3, is “threat or act of terrorism.”
In his first year as governor, 2003, Romney learned a lesson about the differences between management theory and governance. After he was elected, he asked Bain & Company to evaluate the state’s education system, and the Bain-assisted review formed the basis of a radical overhaul that would have increased fees and dismantled the system in place at the University of Massachusetts. In the corporate world, the Bainies, whose power emanated from the C.E.O.’s office, could implement their plans by diktat. On Beacon Hill, Romney had to deal with a Democratic legislature. The Bain education plan never passed. Still, in his last year in office, Romney used a very Bain-like approach—rigorously studying the problem, coming up with a solution based on empiricism, not ideology, and working hard at implementation—to propose a universal-health-care plan for the state and see it passed. Ever since he became a Presidential candidate, Romney has been ambivalent about this success. Sometimes he boasts about it, but at other moments he is uncharacteristically understated. “I like the plan we passed in Massachusetts,” he said in Santa Clara. “It’s not perfect. I liked the one I proposed. The legislature changed it in some ways I wouldn’t have thought about. But I think it is a step forward.”
Romney’s Presidential campaign is perhaps the best indicator of the potential and the limits of Bainism. In G.O.P. political circles, it is frequently cited as being more competently run than any of his opponents’ operations. Although Romney is relying more and more on his personal wealth—he has donated seventeen million dollars of his own money to his campaign—he has also raised forty-five million dollars, almost as much as the leading Republican fund-raiser, Rudy Giuliani, who has raised forty-seven million dollars. And Romney, who started the race as a relatively unknown governor, has made the most progress in polls in the early primary states, though he lags far behind nationally. One Monday this fall, I spent the day at his headquarters in Boston. The campaign takes up two floors of an old law firm in the North End, Boston’s Little Italy. It was the day after the fund-raising quarter closed, and aides were nervously monitoring the news, checking developments about Romney’s opponents. When I walked into the office of Matt Rhoades, Romney’s communications director, he was puzzling over some remarks made by Senator John McCain, in which McCain tried to clarify a statement that America was founded as a Christian nation. Attempting to explain himself, McCain told reporters, “It’s almost Talmudic. We are a nation based on Judeo-Christian values.” Rhoades typed the word “Talmudic” into dictionary.com.
Romney’s strategy was perhaps best summarized by the atmosphere in the office of his campaign manager, Beth Myers. On the wall were maps of the first states to vote in caucuses and primaries—Iowa, New Hampshire, and Michigan. On a bookshelf opposite were thick binders of research on Romney’s top opponents. The spine of one binder said “John McCain, an Unreliable Republican.” Another said “Rudy Giuliani, Left . . . Not Right.” The maps are a reminder that Romney probably has only one path to winning the Republican nomination: he must win the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, states where he has been leading in the polls, and create enough momentum and media attention to carry him through to February 5th, when some twenty states will vote—including New York and California, where Romney is barely known. The labels on the research binders reinforced the idea that Romney’s strategy rests on presenting himself as the true conservative Republican in the race, and on making the sale.Napoleon Hill himself would be impressed with the planning and persistence that Romney has displayed in trying to convert conservatives to his cause. In every Republican debate, he glows with the bright effervescence of a born salesman. But a political campaign may not be as susceptible to the strategies of management consulting as a business, where advising a corporation to reinvent itself is standard practice. Romney’s strategic audit of the 2008 campaign suggested that his party was hungry for a reliable Republican. For Romney, the danger is that of going too far in attempting to please every constituency. In doing so, he may have underestimated the importance of authenticity, an asset that in politics is sometimes more valuable than ideological purity.