Fineman: GOP Candidates as Mr. Fix-its

At Harvard Business School, George W. Bush was what they called a "skydecker"—a guy who sat in the top back row of the lecture hall to minimize the risk of being called on. I asked Mitt Romney, another HBS alum, if he had been one, too. "Oh, no," he assured me, sounding only barely amused by the question. "I wasn't one of those." He was the kind of focused fellow who sat down front, well prepared, hand raised. No one was surprised that he became spectacularly successful as a consultant and hedge-fund manager. He loves "wallowing in the data," as he puts it, applying quantitative methods and a deft managerial touch to knotty problems of business, nonprofit enterprises (the Olympics) and, as former governor of Massachusetts, government.

Since when did a taste for data become something to brag about in a race for the Republican presidential nomination? The answer: ever since it became clear, even to most Republicans, that the term "Bush administration" was an oxymoron. A concatenation of crises convinced most of the country that the skydecker in the White House doesn't know—or much care—about the actual operation of the federal government.

With rare exceptions, GOP '08 candidates adhere to Bush's warrior theory of the world. But the top contenders as of now—Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain and Romney—also are running on a more prosaic theme: as men with the eagerness and training to pop the hood of government, fix the mess inside and explain it all to voters.

McCain, who early on praised the administration's handling of the war, now says the conflict has been "terribly managed." He offers his granular knowledge of the Pentagon—and theories for reforming it—as an alternative. Giuliani, "America's Mayor," claims that he brought peace and new prosperity to New York City by focusing on details. He touts his "broken windows" crime-stopping strategy, which called for monitoring Gotham from his Batcave with a real-time computer program called CompStat. Romney is proud of his state's health-care plan, which requires all citizens who can afford it to purchase insurance. Free-market conservatives were outraged, since the plan imposes a new government mandate. But Romney defends it as the most efficient way to meet a social goal. "It's actually the least 'big government' way to do it," he told me.

Will Managerial Republicanism sell come primary season? "It gets you off the hook on ideological purity," says David Keene, a Washington consultant and student of conservative movements, "but primary voters are going to want to know where you want to take the country."

The rest of the country is entitled to be skeptical as well. The Nixon-Ford era was the heyday of Managerial Republicanism, when concepts such as "cost-benefit analysis" were first applied to government. But famous alumni of that time—Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld—are the culprits who helped the M.B.A. in chief botch things now, big time. Besides, managerial prowess isn't exactly a stirring promise. In 1988, another Massachusetts governor, Michael Dukakis, ran against Vice President George H.W. Bush on a theme of "competence, not ideology." Dukakis lost 40 states.