Illinois Issues: Rauner, Trump And The Lure Of The CEO Politician

Mar 17, 2016

With victories Tuesday in Illinois and elsewhere, Donald Trump is continuing his march toward the Republican presidential nomination. Those contemplating what a Trump presidency would look like might consider Illinois' ongoing case study in the promise and perils of the businessman-turned-politician.

Essay — With victories Tuesday in Illinois and elsewhere, Donald Trump is continuing his march toward the Republican presidential nomination. Party elders are on the move, too, from disbelief at their reality-TV usurper to pondering the possibility that they may soon have to speak the phrase “the Trump administration.”

America has a rich tradition of wealthy people attempting to parlay business success into high office. Voters have an equally rich tradition of turning them out — like Carly Fiorina this year, Herman Cain in 2012 and Ross Perot in the 1990s.

State electorates, on the other hand, have been more enthusiastic about the “run it like a business” sales pitch of the rich and Forbes-list famous.

“Being a successful CEO, where I’ve driven a bottom line, assembled teams, driven results, that’s a critical benefit to running the state government,” private equity investor Bruce Rauner told Chicago magazine’s Carol Felsenthal in 2013. “A CEO’s job is leadership, problem solving and team building. I’ve done that my whole career.”

In 2014, a slim majority of voters here cast their ballots in favor of the investor from Winnetka. Rauner bounded into office with optimistic gusto, promising to make Illinois the most competitive and compassionate state in the land. Fourteen months later, the people of Illinois are living under a partial government shutdown, rising unemployment and a bitter political knife fight that both major parties seem hellbent on playing to the death.

It’s an epic clash. The black-and-white, kill-or-be-killed corporate raider seems incapable of foregoing the opportunity to insult and attack his fellow office holders. But he’s repeatedly banging his head against a culture — a bipartisan culture — in which politics is seen as an honorable profession. While Rauner seems to hate what he derisively calls “career politicians,” many of the targets of his vitriol have proudly welcomed their kids into the family business.

For anyone wondering how a Trump presidency might be, the example of Illinois’ “business guy” governor offers an ongoing case study in the promise and perils of the CEO politician.

The Pitch

There are core elements of the Rauner and Trump messages to voters that are essentially the same. But given how slanderous that comparison might seem — in both Democratic and Republican circles — it seems prudent to lay out their differences first.

There’s no evidence Rauner shares Trump’s most notorious opinions: on Mexican immigrants (“they’re rapists”), on various women (“dog,” “fat,” “disgusting”), and on how best to handle demonstrators at his rallies (“I’d like to punch him in the face”). Candidate Rauner went in the opposite direction, courting African-American voters, reassuring women he “doesn’t have a a social agenda” and disavowing a supporter’s Confederate flag patch.

Although Rauner frequently lets slip his low opinion of the Democrats leading the General Assembly, he’s a far more buttoned-down politician than Trump. The Donald seems to say whatever comes to mind whenever he wants to — a skill no doubt honed on many seasons of his reality TV franchise, The Apprentice. Rauner, on the other hand, rarely reaches beyond his talking points, and almost never takes questions outside the narrow confines of news conferences.

Nevertheless, there are striking similarities in the rhetoric Rauner and Trump use to sell themselves to voters.

Rauner addresses reporters in the Statehouse.
Credit Brian Mackey / WUIS/Illinois Issues

“I’m not a politician; I’m a self-made business guy,” Rauner said during a primary election debate in 2014. “I know how to drive results. I know how to work. I know how to fight. I know how to win.”

Each cites their vast fortunes as evidence of business success. That success, Trump and Rauner argue, is better preparation for running a government than whatever it is that knucklehead politicians have been doing all their lives.

“We have great, great power,” Trump said last week at a news conference. “The problem is we have politicians that truly, truly, truly don’t know what they’re doing.”

Rauner and Trump also argue their fortunes mean that they are less susceptible to influence than less wealthy candidates. They should know, they say, because they’ve both fed the hungry lapdogs of the professional political class.

“As a businessman and a very substantial donor to very important people, when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal last year. He expounded on the point at a Republican debate: “You know, most of the people on this stage I’ve given to — just so you understand — a lot of money.”

Both men have had to explain away past bipartisan political contributions. Rauner said a lot of Democratic donations on campaign finance records were actually made by his wife, but he did acknowledge supporting current and former Chicago mayors Rahm Emanuel and Richard Daley. “The mayors control the school system here,” Rauner told Chicago. Since he’s a big backer of charter schools, he said “it’s important to work with and through the mayors to do that.”

And what did Trump get from his support of Democrats, such as Hillary Clinton? “I said, ‘Be at my wedding,’ and she came to my wedding. You know why? She had no choice, because I gave.”

Aside from being an argument about their own financial independence, both men use the money issue to complain about the dreaded “special interests” they say call the shots with traditional politicians.

Trump, last summer: “They’re all controlled by these people! And the people that control them are the special interests, the lobbyists and the donors.”

Rauner, in 2014: “I won’t sit back and wait and watch while the career politicians and the special interest groups in Springfield take us down a long road of decline.”

Why the Pitch Works

Much has been made of Trump’s appeal among voters who tend toward authoritarianism. But that’s not Rauner. Instead, political science offers a better explanation of the appeal of the governor’s pitch: stealth democracy. The idea was outlined by John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse in their 2002 book Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs about How Government Should Work. It goes like this: people are angry, but not because they don’t like the policy outcomes of our political system. Rather, they don’t like the process. The three main components of the idea have to do with misunderstanding how much people agree on a public agenda, a disdain for self-interested policymakers and intense dislike of the arguments and mess inherent in democratic governance. Seen through the framework of stealth democracy, Rauner is a most typical American.

“People tend to see their own attitudes as typical, so they overestimate the degree to which others share their opinions,” Hibbing and Theiss-Morse write. Last week, Rauner said Illinoisans needed to make their voices heard in the Capitol: “We need democracy to get restored in Illinois, and we need the people to put pressure on members of Speaker Madigan’s caucus to do the right thing.” Of course, thousands of people are doing just that. But among the Democratic supermajorities in the House and Senate, they’re being pressured to do a “right thing” that is not what Rauner has in mind. Where Democrats would balance the budget with a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts, Rauner says he would balance the budget with a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts only after passing business-friendly legislation and weakening collective bargaining.

When the governor makes this case, which he’s done again and again, Rauner is playing on the Stealth Democracy idea that most voters don’t understand why politicians are always fighting. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse write that because most people are not interested in getting informed on more than a few issues — if that — they can’t see what all the fuss is about: “When it is apparent that the political arena is filled with intense policy disagreement, people conclude that the reason must be illegitimate — namely, the influence of special interests.”

There are few phrases more central to the Rauner lexicon than “special interests.” He told Chicago in 2013: “The government unions, the trial lawyers, the folks who make their money from government, they bought, they own the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, they control Springfield. There is nothing — we should be really clear — there is nothing weak, vulnerable, discriminated against about those special interest groups, and they have bought the Democratic party in Springfield. Unfortunately they have bought a number of the Republicans, too. And when you look at what’s happened as a result — our taxes are high and rising, unemployment is rising, and we’re shredding our safety net.”

Rauner makes no allowance for the notion that Democrats — and some Republicans — might have sincere reasons for supporting government unions and trial lawyers. Perhaps they question the wisdom of emulating the relentless layoffs in the private sector or think trial lawyers occasionally do good. The world is more complicated than the governor’s rhetoric allows. But voters tend to think there are simple solutions to what they don’t see as complex problems, and so they eat it up.

“People’s tendency to see the policy world in such a detached, generic and simplistic form explains why Ross Perot’s claim during his presidential campaigns in 1992 and 1996 that he would ‘just fix it’ resonated so deeply with the people,” Hibbing and Theiss-Morse explain. Remember Rauner’s campaign slogan? “Shake up Springfield. Bring back Illinois.” And Trump’s? “Make America great again.” They could slogan-swap without missing a beat. Stealth Democracy tells us that that since most Americans think everyone else agrees with them on what’s best for the nation, and that achieving those results ought to be as simple as putting a bill up and voting for it, we should not be surprised when people see no need for debate and compromise.

The Businessman Becomes Governor

Rauner has followed through on bringing his business-guy attitude to his governance of Illinois. Whether that’s for better or worse depends on one’s perspective.

In his Executive Department, Rauner is pushing ahead on an attempt to modernize Illinois’ antiquated information technology infrastructure, which is said to include more than 400 separate computer systems. He’s also throwing his support behind a commission trying to reduce the state’s prison population by 25 percent over the next decade. On the other hand, despite campaign pledges of transparency, the Rauner administration has been relentlessly secretive and controlling.

All that, however, is secondary to the human drama that’s gradually decimating higher education and state services for the elderly and disabled. In that, dependent on Rauner’s interactions with the legislative branch, the governor’s business approach has thus far yielded few dividends.

“I’ve been involved in a lot of turnarounds,” Rauner said in the early days of his term, speaking with Wall Street Journal editorial writer Collin Levy“A key lesson in a turnaround is go big, go strong, go fast early. You don’t wait around; you don’t think about it; you don’t wonder.” Go big he did, dropping a 44-point “Turnaround Agenda” on legislators in his first weeks on the job. By the end of the spring legislative session, having made no progress on anything requiring legislative approval, Rauner narrowed his immediate agenda to a five-point list of demands. He refused to negotiate on the budget until those were passed. Today, going on nine months into the fiscal year, state government is still dead in the water.

The refusal to negotiate undercuts what was widely perceived to be candidate Rauner’s greatest potential strength. “Negotiating savvy may be the most relevant aspect of his background,” Crain’s Chicago Business columnist Joe Cahill wrote shortly before the election. “A governor advances an agenda through negotiations with legislative leaders and multiple interest groups pursuing divergent, often conflicting, objectives. Nothing gets done without compromise. Private-equity dealmaking requires a similar ability to reconcile the interests of buyers, sellers, investors and lenders.” Cahill acknowledged Rauner would have less negotiating power than he’s used to. “In state government, legislators control the purse strings. And Mr. Rauner would need the support of legislative leaders Michael Madigan and John Cullerton — both Democrats — for any initiatives requiring legislation.”

It's difficult to conceive of a scenario in which mutual trust among Cullerton, Rauner and Madigan could be any lower.
Credit Brian Mackey / NPR Illinois

Even Rauner skeptics did not grasp how much the governor would alienate those Democratic leaders. After all, Madigan had productive relationships with three past Republican governors. Although Rauner spent the campaign bashing “Speaker Madigan and the politicians he controls,” he came into office boasting of “very good working relationships” with Democratic leaders. “No. 1, I’ve worked very hard on personal relationship-building,” Rauner told the Wall Street Journal. “There’s mutual respect. There’s mutual trust that has not existed from prior governors.”

It taxes the imagination to conceive of a scenario in which mutual trust among Rauner, Madigan and Cullerton could be any lower than it is right now. Rauner is constantly insulting the men. “You know what President Cullerton said to me in private?” Rauner asked at a news conference earlier this month. “He said, ‘Bruce, I lived in Mike Madigan’s shadow for 37 years. I’m not gonna step out now.’ Can you believe that? Can you believe that?”

As a matter of fact I can. No one with direct knowledge of the incident is expounding on what happened, but there seem to be three possibilities: 1) The governor made it up. 2) Cullerton said it sincerely. 3) Cullerton said it sarcastically.

It seems unlikely that Senate President John Cullerton would have confessed his deepest legislative shortcomings to his main political adversary.
Credit Brian Mackey / NPR Illinois

It seems unlikely the governor would go before TV cameras and invent something so specific. It also seems unlikely that the Senate president would confide his deepest legislative shortcomings in a private meeting with his main political adversary. That leaves the third option. Cullerton’s wit is dry as a Death Valley martini, and it’s not hard to imagine him deadpanning something about being in the speaker’s shadow. If that’s the case — and again, we really don’t know — it’s hard to say what’s worse: that Rauner didn’t get the joke or that he deliberately distorted it — to say nothing of the fact he claimed to be revealing something Cullerton said “in private.” Cullerton responded to the governor with a written statement: “I’m not going to dignify that with a comment.”

This is not to say Democrats don’t share the blame for the state government shutdown. They had years in which they controlled both the governor’s mansion and legislature, yet they failed to permanently balance the budget. That failure, like the dysfunction in Washington, D.C., helps create the openings for “run it like a business” candidates. On top of that, it’s hard to believe Madigan has been a sincere negotiating partner when he reportedly sits through meetings like a sphinx, not saying a word.

Is this dynamic a result of the governor’s staunchly conservative agenda? That cannot be ignored. But it could also be that Rauner is having a hard time negotiating with the Democratic legislators because he abandoned the skills he once credited with making him so successful in business.

“There’s no distinction in my day between my work and my play,” he said in a 2004 interview with Private Equity International. “I’ll get to know a CEO on a very personal level. We’ll play golf, go out to dinner, have a cigar, go hunting, fishing. Get to know their family. We become friends, which is part of the fun of the business.” Can you picture Rauner, Cullerton and Madigan, shivering lakeside in the early morning quiet, horizontal shafts of sunlight illuminating the cigar smoke wafting from their duck blind?

“Life's too short to work with folks that you're not going to enjoy,” Rauner said in 2004. Indeed. It’s been three months since the governor last met with all four legislative leaders.

The Promise and the Peril

It’s difficult to argue Illinois is better off today than before its businessman governor took office. Unemployment is on the rise, the state’s worst-in-the-nation credit rating continues dropping, and the human toll of Rauner’s carefully stage-managed budget crisis is only getting worse.

In January, Bruce Rauner pledged to support the recommendations of his criminal justice reform commission.
Credit Brian Mackey / WUIS

Rauner says he’s in it for the long haul. That without his common-sense reforms — everyone agrees on those, right? — Illinois will continue on its “death spiral.” “We'll take short-term pain for big long-term gain,” Rauner told reporters in December.

Like Trump is doing now, Rauner spent his campaign criticizing both Republicans and Democrats. Not every legislator is “corrupt,” but it’s “mostly true,” he told the Daily Herald editorial board in 2014. Nevertheless: “I want to work with the legislature to drive results, and I’ll be down there every day they’re in session.”

Sound familiar? Shortly after saying America’s current crop of politicians “truly, truly, truly don’t know what they’re doing,” Trump also said he would “get along great with Congress, OK? Now Paul Ryan, I don’t know him well. But I’m sure I’m going to get along great with him. And if I don’t, he’s going to have to pay a big price.” Trump also said he had “tremendous” phone conversations with Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after his primary wins this week.

“I spoke with Mitch McConnell today, we had a great conversation,” Trump said Tuesday. “The fact is, we have to bring our party together.” McConnell characterized the interaction differently, telling reporters he had called to ask Trump to condemn the violence at some of his rallies and to discourage future clashes. It calls to mind Rauner’s shifting story about speaking to Madigan and Cullerton on election night.

In the end, the promise and peril of the businessman politician is the same thing: that they will bring their business mindset to bear on a realm that doesn’t always abide the same laws of nature. Some parts of government, notably the executive branch, could stand to emulate the increased efficiency and productivity of the private sector. But making laws is not like making widgets, and the legislative branch is not a board of directors — no matter how many nettlesome pro-union members the executive succeeds in sidelining.

Columnist Michael Kinsley has spent some time wrestling with the idea of the businessman politician in the pages of Vanity Fair. “Most recent presidential campaigns have featured some deus ex machina candidate, usually from the business world, claiming to have experience that is better than the experience of running for office and then running the government,” he wrote in the December 2015 issue. “Only one business titan has ever been elected. That was Herbert Hoover, a mining magnate who traded in an enviable reputation as overseer of humanitarian work in Europe during and after World War I for a reputation he will never shake, whether justifiable or not, as the hopeless loser who needed to be ejected from the White House in order to make room for F.D.R., the professional politician.”

Though you’d never know it from the way both parties are (not) addressing their failure to enact a budget, let alone to balance one, Illinois cannot wait until November 2018 to find out whether Rauner will be Hoovered. One can only hope the governor soon works out how best to apply his past skill set to his new line of work.

As for Trump, if he wins the presidency, his success or failure could hinge on which version of the CEO politician he chooses to be: the dealmaker or the demagogue.

Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.