Who'll be Kerry's Bob Rubin?

Who'll be Kerry's Bob Rubin?

Who'll be Kerry's Bob Rubin?

Moneybox
Commentary about business and finance.
July 14 2004 4:14 PM

The Men Who Would Be Bob

Can Kerry find his own Robert Rubin?

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Who will be Kerry's Rubin?

Quick—name the secretary of the treasury. I bet you can't. Or if you can, you had to think about it before you remembered the eminently forgettable John Snow.

It wasn't like that in the '90s, when Wall Streeters would melt like smitten schoolgirls at the very mention of the word "Bob." Former Goldman Sachs supremo Robert Rubin, the treasury secretary and economic adviser, was the unsullied genius of the Clinton administration's economic team and a mascot of the long-running bull market. Usually Wall Street and big business types are wary of Democrats on economics (despite the fact that the stock market performs better under Democratic presidents than Republican ones). But Rubin soothed Wall Street and business.

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John Kerry and John Edwards badly need a Rubin of their own. The top economic adviser should be someone who has made a ton of money (proof of entrepreneurship), doesn't mind paying higher marginal tax rates (big heart), and who can speak credibly about the relationship between deficits and interest rates (big brain): someone who can soothe the markets, massage the egos of CEOs, and sell policies that may be occasionally out of sync with the revanchist minds at the Business Roundtable.

Rubin doesn't seem to be available this time around, and his Rubinesque successor, Larry Summers, appears to be enjoying his dream job as president of Harvard. But Kerry needn't worry. His bench is pretty deep. Here is the Moneybox guide to the men who would play Bob Rubin to John Kerry's Clinton.

The Front-Runners

1. Roger Altman
Pedigree: Service in Carter and Clinton Treasury departments, stellar investment banking career at Lehman Brothers and Blackstone Group. Founded Evercore private equity firm in 1996.

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Why Kerry would pick him: He's got substantial experience as an investor, adviser to CEOs, and government executive. Evercore's ownership of American Media—proprietor of the National Enquirer and Star tabloids—could provide useful counterbalance to malevolent Fox media empire.

How he's auditioning: Serves as adviser to campaign on economic issues; does endless CNBC appearances; wrangles CEOs and near-CEOs to endorse Kerry

Potential deal-breakers: Clinton-era Treasury service ended unhappily in an obscure chapter of the Whitewater saga. Also, his hair frequently is tousled. Can you trust a messy-haired man with a $10 trillion economy?

2.Steven Rattner
Pedigree:New York Times reporter-turned-media-savvy-media-investment-banker. Longtime protégé of Democratic Wall Street wise man Felix Rohatyn at Lazard Freres. Runs his own private equity firm, Quadrangle Group.

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Why Kerry would pick him: Former reporter plays the press like a fiddle. Great schmoozability with Wall Streeters and CEOs. Early adapter: He raised funds for Kerry before he locked up the nomination.

How he's auditioning: Same as Altman, minus the television appearances; recent Rubinesque New York Times op-ed.

Potential deal-breaker: Once dated Bush administration dupe Judith Miller.

3. James Johnson
Pedigree:
Former Mondale aide, founded consulting firm Public Strategies with Richard Holbrooke. Worked at Lehman Brothers, then served as CEO of Fannie Mae for much of the 1990s. Chairman of Brookings Institution and Kennedy Center. Currently vice chairman of private equity firm Perseus, LLC.

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Why Kerry would pick him: The longtime Washington powerbroker is a smooth operator and is close to famously aloof candidate. Experience working with Holbrooke would come in handy in dealing with obstreperous senators.

How he's auditioning: Leading vice-presidential search committee; chatting up business grandees behind the scenes; vital cog in prolific Kerry money machine.

Potential deal-breaker:Real investment bankers ply their trade in Manhattan, not D.C. Danger of having administration populated entirely by guys with "John" in their name.

The Contenders

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1. Franklin Raines
Pedigree:
Harvard man, Rhodes scholar, Lazard Freres partner, and Office of Management and Budget head under Clinton. Since 1998, CEO of Fortune 500 company Fannie Mae  (yes, another Fannie Mae CEO).

Why Kerry would pick him: Raines is a huge force in the capital markets, a member in good standing of the Business Roundtable, and carries clout on Capitol Hill. (Under Raines, Fannie Mae has given lots of soft money to both parties.)

How he's auditioning: Nothing official. Too busy providing American dream to millions.

Potential deal-breakers: Might have difficulty playing nice with Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who has deemed Fannie Mae a threat to the republic. Oh, and what about that housing bubble?

2. Jon Corzine
Pedigree:
Goldman Sachs lifer who succeeded Robert Rubin as CEO. Resigned after Goldman IPO in 1999 and successfully ran for Senate in New Jersey.

Why Kerry would pick him: An ex-Wall Street CEO whom liberals love. Could deploy portion of vast personal fortune to help balance the budget.

How he's auditioning: Endorsed Kerry in January, brokered peace among feuding Kerry supporters in New Jersey, chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Potential deal-breakers: Beard and sweater-vests won't go over well at G-8 finance meetings; awkward on television.

3. Gene Sperling
Pedigree:
Wharton graduate, stalwart of Clinton economic team—dubbed "MVP" by the boss. Ran the National Economic Council from 1996 to 2000. Has since made his home at think tanks—currently at the Council on Foreign Relations—where he wages rearguard op-ed and television battles against budget profligacy on the right and free-trade backsliding on the left.

Why Kerry would pick him: Having lasted both Clinton terms, he proved he has two necessary attributes for the job: incredible stamina and masochism.

How he's auditioning: Frequent television appearances, even on hostile Fox News Channel; centrist big-think essays on education and trade in Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy.

Potential deal-breakers: His notion of the private sector is the Brookings Institution; he's a contributing writer for tanking TV show The West Wing;he's not disgustingly rich.

Dark Horse

1. Peter G. Peterson
Pedigree:
Former wunderkind turned eminence grise. Child of Greek immigrants became young CEO of Bell & Howell, served as commerce secretary under Nixon, and founded highly successful private equity firm Blackstone Group. Founding president of the Concord Coalition, he has authored a series of books on the nation's impending entitlement disaster.

Why Kerry would pick him: Erstwhile Republican disenchanted with his party's lack of fiscal discipline and inability to govern like grown-ups. Soothing manner. Loathes supply-siders. Bridge to the establishment. Married to Joan Ganz Cooney, creator of Sesame Street.

How he's auditioning: New book, Running on Empty, rips Republicans a new one. Money quote: "In sum, this administration and the Republican Congress have presided over the biggest, most reckless deterioration of America's finances in history. It includes a feast of pork, inequitable and profligate tax cuts, and a major new expansion of Medicare that is unaccompanied by any serious measures to control its exploding cost."

Potential deal-breakers: He criticizes Democrats, too. Americans love entitlements.

Really Dark Horse

1.Warren Buffett
Pedigree: Son of Republican Congressman, broke with daddy's politics over civil rights; longtime plainspoken head of Berkshire-Hathaway. Nation's second-richest man and greatest investor.

Why Kerry would pick him: Who knows more about taxes, investing, and the economy? A bunch of phony businessmen and supply-side hacks, or the nation's second-richest man and greatest investor?

How he's auditioning: Defending the estate tax, lashing out at dividend-tax reduction, criticizing Bush economic stewardship in an angry Fortune article. Did I mention that he's the nation's second-richest man and greatest investor?

Potential deal-breakers: Has made a big public bet against the dollar; advised Democrat-slayer Arnold Schwarzenegger in the California gubernatorial campaign.