Ethics Bob Stone sent in a comment late last night that I replied to, but that I think deserves more discussion, on several points. Responding to my Ethics Hero designation for Ron Paul for coming to his adversary’s defense over Romney’s now infamous remark about firing people, Bob wrote:
“…I think Romney’s “I like to fire people”–even taken IN context–displays an inner heartlessness. I know about creative destruction, and I myself have taken actions to lay off people, and even fired a couple face-to-face. I did what needed to be done. No apologies.
“But did I like it? I HATED it.
“Romney’s comment seems of a kind with his strapping the family dog on his car roof for a 500-mi trip, or his advocacy of breaking up families to deport the parent or child who’s illegal. Gingrich was right.”
There are several issues here, some minor. Gingrich, in fact, didn’t jump on Romney’s statement, despite attacking him on similar grounds based on his Bain activities. Newt said the criticism was unfair and that the statement was taken out of context, but spared himself an Ethics Hero by still deriding the statement as clumsy, saying, “In debate, do you really want someone who is that clumsy?” (Newt still believes this a debate competition.) Also, Romney did not say that he likes to fire people. Here is the whole statement:
“I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means that if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know, if someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I want to say, ‘You know, I’m going to go get somebody else to provide that service to me.’ ”
It’s pretty clear, don’t you think? “I like being able to fire people” may be a red flag to teachers unions and other public employees who think that a job should be theirs for life whether they can do the tasks required well or not, but to people of normal fairness, logic and common sense with a respect for personal choice, Romney’s statement is reasonable, and not even especially clumsy. I heard a reporter ask Romney, “Do your regret your statement about firing people given the way it has been interpreted by some commentators?” Isn’t that rich? Does he regret telling the truth and making a straightforward statement because dishonest, unscrupulous people (I don’t mean Bob) distorted it to make him look bad? Mitt tap=danced through a non-answer, but what he should have said was, “No, I regret that we have to try to talk to the American people through a media that distorts what we say rather than reporting it.”
Actually, that’s what Newt would have said.
The larger issue raised by Bob, however, is whether “heart” is a key leadership quality or qualification. I don’t believe it is. The ethics mix for leaders is very different than for the rest of us. Leaders need candor, honesty, accountability, responsibility, courage, prudence, judgment, respect for others, respect for process, trustworthiness, some measure of humility, and especially competence. Kindness, sympathy and empathy are way down the list, and in many cases, are affirmative impediments to effective leadership on a national level. Obvious examples are a leader’s difficult task of balancing interests of individuals with the needs of the nation. A President who learns that, no question about it, government benefits for the poor have to be reduced of the country goes the way of Greece and yet says, “I understand the numbers, but I just can’t find it in my heart to do that to those people! I just can’t!” is a nice guy, but a lousy leader. Presidents from Reagan to Obama have refused to fire obviously incompetent Cabinet officials because they don’t like firing people, even people who should be fired, and people who are hurting the nation by remaining in office. I am no fan of Bill Clinton, but in one respect (many, actually), he had the soul of a leader—by all accounts, once he felt you were of no value, you were out. He was ruthless. In certain situations, good leaders have to be ruthless. Leaders with “heart” can’t make a dispassionate decision about sending in the troops, or dropping the atom bomb, or making tough budget cuts. Romney didn’t say he liked firing people, but I suspect that he doesn’t mind the task as much as Bob does, or Obama, or either Bush. That’s a good thing. Firing people who deserve to be fired is part of leadership, and those who HATE it, like Bob, are less likely to do it.
Bob’s other two knocks on Romney, the dog-on-the-roof story and his views on illegals with citizen family members have been discussed here at other times. But on the matter of firing people, Mitt has exactly the right mindset for an effective leader. I’d rather have Ethics Bob as a friend, an advisor, an ethicist and a teacher, but when it comes to clearing out the deadwood, and in the government there is plenty of that, give me someone who likes the job.