The American appetite for businessmen in government is a hardy perennial. Ross Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992 on the strength of his "get under the hood" appeal. The Republican Party nominated Wendell Willkie in 1940 (though he'd been a Democrat until 1939) because he was perceived as a businessman "with a heart." Now, the president-elect has chosen Exxon Mobil chief Rex Tillerson for secretary of state. Is a businessman -- a great dealmaker, according to the Donald Trump camp -- what we need as secretary of state?
Progressives tend to respond in Pavlovian fashion to corporate CEOs, especially oil company executives. "Corporate America" is their bête noire -- which just demonstrates their tunnel vision. In fact, the leaders of big corporations in the U.S. tend to bend with fashion in political matters. Recall that a number of large companies denounced Indiana when it passed its Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and some even withdrew from the state. Among those bringing pressure to amend or repeal the law were Apple Inc., Angie's List, Subaru, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and Gen Con. Some of the nation's largest companies are very generous to progressive causes, and when they start foundations, it's Katie-bar-the-door (yes, that means you, Ford Foundation).
In my experience, small-business owners tend to be more conservative than executives of large corporations. Why? 1) Small businesses lack the heft to influence the government; and 2) they lack the manpower/income to comply with costly regulations. Large companies are better positioned to lobby the government for favorable treatment, including policies that will harm their competitors (which often includes the small businesses), and they have the staff to fill out stupid, useless government forms.
When I heard that Tillerson was instrumental in getting the Boy Scouts to change its policy on homosexuality, that Exxon Mobil donated to Planned Parenthood on his watch and that he favors a carbon tax, I wasn't surprised. Thiels, Mackeys and Kochs are thin on the ground.
Tillerson's business experience is impressive, but it tells us nothing important about whether he is a good choice for secretary of state. What is most relevant, and what the senators who question him during his confirmation hearings will want to illuminate, is what his views are on American foreign policy.
President George W. Bush intervened aggressively in Afghanistan and Iraq. President Barack Obama withdrew precipitously from Iraq, dithered about Afghanistan and studiously declined to intervene in Syria. What are Tillerson's views of the wisdom/folly of those policies? Where does he stand on normalizing relations with Cuba? The Paris climate accord? The Iran deal? Obama tilted the U.S. toward Iran and sharply away from Israel and the Sunni powers in the region. What are Tillerson's views?
Does he agree with John Kerry (and his old friend James A. Baker III) that solving the Israel/Palestine dispute is the key to peace in the region?
What is the major geostrategic threat to the United States?
Is a trade war the way to deal with China? Who would be hurt by a 35 percent tariff on imported goods? What are other options for curtailing Chinese aggression?
Is it ever in the United States' interest to defend human rights or small nations menaced by bigger neighbors?
Then there are the critical issues President-elect Trump raised during the campaign. Does NATO remain a keystone of U.S. defense? Does it serve U.S. interests to see South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia and other nations acquire nuclear weapons? Should the United States repeal the sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea (as Tillerson urged when he was pursuing the interests of Exxon Mobil)?
And while we're on the subject of Russia, how many consecutive presidencies should begin with a resolution to improve relations with Russia? Why, in light of Putin's unrelenting hostility, vicious, often-murderous behavior toward critics and rivals at home, Soviet-style anti-American propaganda, possible hacking of our political parties, and unblushing war crimes abroad (especially, lately, in Syria), should we seek better relations? Doesn't that seem pusillanimous just now?
Trump promised to destroy ISIS "very quickly." How would that be accomplished?
The president-elect has said that strongmen are preferable to chaos. Agree? Trump took a congratulatory call from Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who has launched a terror campaign against drug dealers and addicts. Thousands have been killed. What ought the U.S. response be?
Who are our most important allies? What, if any, is America's global role?