Is America ready for its first consultant president?

As the race for the White House heats up, a whole host of lesser-known politicians have started to stake their claim alongside the Bidens and Bernies in the top tier of candidates. One of these is Pete Buttigieg. Buttigieg—mayor of South Bend, Indiana (population 102,000) and known as “Mayor Pete” to his fans—recently made headlines by announcing that his team had raised over US$7m in the first quarter of 2019, outpacing many of his better-known rivals. Since then, he has received a flurry of positive media attention, including glowing profiles comparing him to JFK.

If elected next year, Mayor Pete would break a lot of barriers. He would be the youngest person ever to hold the office, the first openly gay president, and the first person to go straight from City Hall to the White House. Less remarked on, however, is another milestone: Having spent his formative years at McKinsey (after graduating magna cum laude from Harvard and with a first from Oxford), Pete Buttigieg would be America’s very first consultant-in-chief.

In some ways, it is surprising that no consultant has ever been elected president. If the top firms really are, as they like to claim, hoovering up America’s best and brightest straight out of top MBA programmes, you would expect at least some of those bright young things to go on to a career in politics. In many ways, it seems like a natural career progression. Being a successful consultant requires an eye for detail mixed with an ability to tell a compelling story–pretty much the exact attributes that make for a successful politico.

There have been a few near misses, but none quite as close as Mitt Romney’s bid for the office in 2012. Romney joined Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in 1975, before leaving a few years later to take a job at Bain & Company, at the time still a young and scrappy underdog firm founded by a handful of other ex-BCGers. By the age of 31 he was a VP and was regarded as one of the firm’s most impressive performers. In 1984, he was tasked with leading Bain’s private equity spin-off, Bain Capital, which he did successfully for many years before returning to the parent brand as its new CEO in 1991, rescuing the firm from financial meltdown. Without Romney, arguably, the Bain brand would not exist today.

But Romney is the exception here. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (formerly of McKinsey) made a brief and ill-fated run in 2016, but otherwise examples of consultants turned presidential contenders are few and far between. And internationally, there is a similar dearth of consulting talent among the holders of top political offices. One of the few world leaders with consulting experience is Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, who spent two years at BCG in the ’70s (incidentally, at the same time as Romney; the two have both fondly recalled their time working together and remain close friends to this day).

It is worth considering why, exactly, it is that consultants have had so little success in the political arena, especially compared to other high-flying professions—since 1900, 38% of US presidents have worked as lawyers, for example. It can’t just be a numbers game: While there are more lawyers than consultants in the US, there are not that many more—and besides, there are only around 33,000 full-time newspaper correspondents in the country, and yet multiple presidents have had journalistic experience (most notably JFK, who spent the summer of 1945 covering the Potsdam Conference).

Partly, negative preconceptions about consultants may be hamstringing their political ambitions; critics of Mitt Romney used his background in consulting and private equity to paint him as an unreconstructed vulture capitalist, and left-wing publications like Current Affairs have already started using Mayor Pete’s McKinsey bona fides to suggest that he cannot be a true social and economic progressive.

That said, it would be almost wilfully naïve after 2016 to think that a brazen desire for money and status could be a serious impediment to winning the White House. More likely, the reason has to do with the type of people who are attracted to a consulting career in the first place. Those who have a genuine desire for public service—who might consider a career in politics after a stint in the private sector—are, it seems, still drawn more to the legal profession than to consulting. No doubt this has something to do with the cultural mythos surrounding the two: There is, for example, no consulting analogue to the principled public defender or the “Atticus Finch” archetype.

If the big firms want to attract the next generation of political luminaries, they should think about how they present themselves to politically conscious applicants. That could mean putting more of an emphasis on their pro bono and community projects—or it could mean drawing attention to the crucial role their public sector practices play in safeguarding the delivery of vital public services and maintaining the operational efficiency of countless government agencies.

It remains to be seen whether 2020 will be a breakthrough year for consultants in politics—and there are certainly much more consequential glass ceilings that are still to be broken. But if Mayor Pete does win the nomination next year, we should expect to see more scrutiny of his record and career—and, as in 2012, a renewed conversation about the role the industry plays in public life.