Republicans didn’t have much luck nominating a financial industry chief executive officer in 2012. Mitt Romney was a lousy candidate for a lot of reasons.
Romney didn’t have good political reflexes. For example, in April 2012, the Obama Labor Department issued a new rule that would have prevented children from being paid to do chores on their family’s farm. Instead of railing against this intrusion on parenthood, Romney stood silent.
More importantly, Romney lacked the foundational education and experience in all too many things a presidential candidate just has to have. I interviewed him in 2008, just before he lost the nomination to John McCain.
Before the interview I told his staff that, as national security is my bag, I’d focus on those issues. Romney was as prepared as I’d expect a CEO to be. He had apparently been briefed extensively on defense and foreign policy and was able to parrot back the briefing in his own words. But, as unquestionably smart as he was, he was lost if I asked anything outside his briefing points. He lacked the foundation of knowledge, education, and experience that could have enabled him to answer more probing questions.
Romney was supposed to be a skilled politician, having been Massachusetts governor. But he was too soft. He didn’t want to bash Obama, even when he richly deserved it. And he wasn’t knowledgeable enough — or tough enough — to stand up to CNN’s Candy Crowley when she “corrected” him about what Obama said about the Benghazi attack even though Obama hadn’t said what she proclaimed.
Now we have Donald Trump, another corporate CEO who lacks both the political experience that Romney had and a foundation in defense and foreign policy. No one is going to accuse Trump of being too soft. But since the Republican convention three weeks ago, he’s consistently demonstrated some of the worst characteristics of the American CEO.
I’ve had a lot of experience with CEOs. I’ve worked for a few and have had many more as law clients.
When I was being hired to work for Lockheed Corporation in the mid-1980s, I had to pass muster at corporate headquarters. That process consisted of talking to the corporate psychiatrist (who apparently wanted to be sure that I was sufficiently crazy to take a tough job) and Lockheed’s CEO, a gent named Roy Anderson. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember leaving the interview thinking that Anderson was extraordinarily smart and knowledgeable about what was going on in the corporation and in Washington. He — and the other Lockheed leaders I was fortunate to work with — were the best I’ve known. Their ever-inquiring minds sought ways to solve problems, not just deal with them.
Trump isn’t like that. In the past three weeks he’s busied himself by shunning fellow Republicans, NATO, Japan and almost every aspect of the world except Hillary Clinton. As Michael Barone pointed out last week, it’s time spent and opportunities lost that can’t be recovered.
In the 1992 campaign, Clinton adviser James Carville famously devised the slogan “It’s the economy, stupid.” Signs stating the slogan were hung around the campaign headquarters to remind everyone from Bubba on down to focus on their line of attack and nothing else.
Someone should hang a few signs in Trump headquarters that say, “It’s Hillary, stupid.”
Trump is showing himself to be a politically incorrect version of Romney. He’s a CEO, expert in his world of construction finance and without experience or knowledge outside it. He frames questions only in terms of financial cost to the United States, not in the non-monetary values of strategic relationships. He is different from the Roy Andersons of the world not only because of his lack of knowledge and experience in defense and foreign policy but his uninquisitive mind.
Trump sees our allies not in their strategic value to us but only in terms of how much it costs us to defend them. That’s not an invalid question. I’ve written many times that we need to send a “tough love” message to the NATO nations and others who aren’t pulling their weight. But instead of Trump’s threats to abandon them, he should be insisting that these allies invest in their own defense so that they can help us defend our interests in their regions.
In the next ninety days, Trump will have to face Hillary in at least three debates and a consistently hostile press, even among some of the conservative media. In the debates he should expect to be challenged harshly by Clinton and the “moderators” about his many statements about our allies and how the wars we are fighting can be won. His answers will be mocked harshly and repeated endlessly until November 8 unless he demonstrates competence and the basic knowledge a presidential candidate has to have.
For example, in one of the primary debates he said that we should be killing terrorists’ families because, while the terrorists don’t care about their own lives they do care about their families. As I wrote at the time, intentionally killing non-combatant civilians is a war crime. There’s no excuse for a presidential candidate not knowing that.
There’s no excuse for a candidate to not know why we can’t negotiate a deal with the Chinese on the South China Sea or Putin on his European aggression. As Chinese President Xi Jinping warned in late June, there are limits to diplomacy and “Some differences cannot be solved at the moment.” As Chinese aircraft fly combat patrols over disputed areas of the South China Sea, Trump needs to understand that “cutting a deal” with them isn’t going to happen.
In a recent interview he didn’t even know that Russian troops are in Ukraine where fighting continues. He needs to understand why Putin is dealing from strength and cutting a deal with him now can’t be done in a way that benefits our strategic interests.
Trump won’t learn world history or military and foreign policy in a few hours of debate preparation. What he can learn and must learn is the importance of what he doesn’t know.
While at Lockheed I was fortunate to get to know the late Ben Rich. A thermodynamicist by profession, Ben was chief of the famed Skunk Works which produced technological breakthroughs at a frenetic pace. He explained to me how a research and development project would proceed in terms of “known unknowns” — the problems you can foresee — and “unknown unknowns,” the technological barriers you can’t foresee but inevitably encounter on the way to developing things such as stealth technology.
As Ben put it, “It’s the unk-unks that’ll kill ’ya.” The “unk-unks” will come up as the campaign goes on, courtesy of Iran, Russia, China, and whatever terrorist networks attack before November 8.
Trump is not paying attention to the known unknown, Hillary Clinton. Her reactions, irredeemable corruption, and continued dishonesty are predictable. His inattention has to stop this week.
Trump needs to be introduced to the fictional Indian war chief every fighter pilot knows, Chief OODA. In a split second, a fighter jock has to Observe, Orient himself to the threat, Decide and Act. If Trump can get inside Clinton’s OODA loop, he can win as we hope he does. Right now, Clinton is inside his loop. If left uncorrected that, and the “unk-unks,” will defeat him.
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