"If you inherited a company," asked my friend, "who would you want to run it? A guy who had been wildly successful in business, or someone who had never run any kind of organization, who has no business experience?"
You guessed it — we were talking politics.
I didn't have a good response. I fumbled and temporized, because my friend was right. Anyone with a lick of sense would hire Mitt Romney. President Barack Obama wouldn't even make it past a résumé review.
I argued that presidents are different from CEOs (the typical Democratic line), but he swept aside my objections with steely, rich-guy arguments.
"Oh, so you don't want the country to be successful," he said snarkily. "You want us to get deeper in debt, be even less competitive in international markets. You want us to have Sweden's foreign policy, Spain's economy and Greece's work ethic ..." Then he segued into the farther shores of the right, dropping iconic names like Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman and Friedrich (or was it Salma?) Hayek.
Ayn Rand? Rand Paul? Same thing — just Scientology for smart people, so I changed the subject.
I suppose that I shouldn't be surprised by our city's ardent embrace of the extreme right. Yet it was not always so. Once upon a time, traditional conservatives such as longtime Congressman Joel Hefley, state Speaker of the House Chuck Berry, Rep. Marcy Morrison and County Commissioner Chuck Brown ran things. Fringies like Charlie Duke and Betty Beedy had little influence.
Now? Many El Paso County Republicans think that Romney is too liberal — remember, they endorsed Rick Santorum for president in the caucus.
Local business owners may not be tea partiers, but the local mindset has its effects. That may be why Springs investment manager Jim Ranals, mirroring the sentiment of the local business community, thinks that Romney will win in a landslide. He, as well as most of my Republican pals, can't understand why anyone would vote for Obama over Romney.
Starting any business is difficult. Creating and/or successfully managing a large enterprise requires uncommon skill sets — that's why those who do so are handsomely rewarded. You may regard Romney as a junkyard capitalist whose fortune was mostly derived from predatory business deals, but so what? Anyone who can make a quarter of a billion through his/her intelligence and enterprise belongs in the pantheon of American business.
You can't fit Obama into the business narrative. He's a smart guy who wrote a book, navigated the treacherous shoals of Illinois politics, got elected to minor office, then the Senate, seized a moment in history, and became president. After four so-so years, why is he leading the polls? Ironically, voters may believe Obama has leadership abilities that Romney lacks.
What a president most needs is caution, judgment and a sophisticated understanding of the world as it is. Such qualities don't necessarily lead to success in business, where agile maneuvering, comfort with risk, and dramatic change are simple facts of life.
Romney wants to reinvent government. He doesn't see a complex, reasonably efficient organization essential to every American, but a lumbering behemoth that needs to be junked and rebuilt. He sees an American version of the former Soviet Union — a candidate for Bain-inspired restructuring.
Bold initiatives work in business. Sometimes you bet the company on a new product (think Steve Jobs), or support a culture of change and turmoil (think ex-General Electric boss Jack Welch). But when bold, all-embracing change doesn't work in government, the results are catastrophic. You can walk away from a broken company — you can only flee a broken country.
Successful heads of state are cautious masters of calculated risk and incremental gain (think Hu Jintao, Dwight Eisenhower, Vladimir Putin), who understand the limits of power.
Put the helm hard to starboard on a supertanker, and the ship won't respond for several miles. Vast countries like the United States, China and Russia are balky and difficult — and if you get in trouble, it's not easy to get out.
That may be why President Obama seems headed for re-election, despite an uncertain economy. Bold initiatives are so 2008. People just want a guy who won't run the ship of state aground.