Romney’s Big Problem Isn’t His Chief Strategist

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Any reporter who’s covered Mitt Romney this election season knows there are people in his campaignand legions more in the GOP professional classwho don’t like Stuart Stevens, his chief strategist. Thanks to pieces yesterday in Politico and The New York Times, we’ve learned something new: These people really don’t like Stuart Stevens. 

The basic knock on Stevens to this point has been that the campaign has lacked imagination or ambition: There’s been nothing remotely innovative about any policy it’s proposed or any message it’s field-tested. Just a monotonous insistence that Obama hasn’t revived the economy, which looked like a winning strategy a year ago but has felt a bit lacking in recent months. Well, that and people consider Stevens a self-promoting dilettante. (Did I mention they don't like him?) 

The recent stories review these old charges and add a new one: that Stevens mismanaged the GOP convention, which, when compared to Obama’s more successful affair, left Romney vulnerable two months from Election Day. In particular, the Politico piece alleges that the making of Romney’s speech, which Stevens oversaw, was a minor disaster, leading to such unforced errors as the omission of the word “Afghanistan.” 

I’m not a die-hard Stevens defender. While profiling him this summer, I became convinced he underestimated the power of conservatives, then overcompensated when it became clear Romney had a rebellion on his hands in the primaries. My feeling is that Romney has basically been running backwards this whole election cycle. He kicked off the campaign as a relative moderate, moved rightward to lock up the nomination, doubled-down on his conservative positions early in the general-election, and has yet to move back to the center. Romney did this even though the conservative desire to oust Obama is so complete that, as a practical matter, he had near-endless room to maneuver in. 

Having said that, I think Stevens is only a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. The Politico piece concedes that “Romney ultimately bears responsibility for the decisions he personally oversaw” and that “whatever Stevens’ shortcomings, presidential candidates get the campaigns they want.” These read like dutiful “to be sure” concessions in a piece that casts Stevens as a cancer on Team Romney. But I think they’re much, much truer in this case than they are in most campaigns. 

Take the convention-speech criticism. I’m more than willing to believe, as Politico reports, that Stevens went through a variety of speechwriters before deciding, relatively late in the game, to huddle with Romney so they could write the speech themselves. But I’d be pretty surprised if it was a unilateral decision by Stevens. Romney considers himself to be a pretty solid writer and he’s always been a big presence in his own speechwriting shopmuch more so than most candidates. If he agreed to crash a new speech with time running out, I’d guess it’s because he deemed the available material lacking or poorly suited to him. 

As for Afghanistan, Romney isn’t brain-dead. He knows there are Americans dying over there; he knew what was and wasn’t in his speech. If it somehow didn’t occur to him to mention the former in the latter, or if it did occur to him and he opted against it, then that’s a reflection of his own state of mind, not a staff problem. (An aside: Given that the only real piece of news in these pieces surrounds the convention speech, and given that one of Romney’s speechwriters has a well-established history of knifing his colleagues, it’s easy to imagine where this latest round of recriminations might emanate from.)

More broadly, Romney really did get “the campaign he wanted,” and in a much more explicit way than people realize. My own view of why Romney hired Stevens, based on interviews I did with campaign officials while working on my profile, is that Romney didn’t want to disown the health care reform bill that was his signature accomplishment as Massachusetts governor. Problem was, at the time he was preparing to run for president, pretty much every Republican around insisted he had no choiceit was either ditch health care or lose the nomination. Everyone, that is, except Stevens, who felt Romney could survive the primaries as a relative moderate so long as he channeled the Tea Party’s anti-Obama rage. Romney liked what he heard and they gave it a go.

This, I'd argue, is why Romney feels so loyal to Stevens to this day. Obviously Stevens’ master plan didn’t work out flawlesslyRomney had to move pretty far right on immigration and fiscal policy to lock up the nomination. But in a narrow way Stevens turned out to be right: Romney never did have to disown his precious health-care reform baby. And so, during the inevitable moments of angst, Stevens has always been able to say to his boss, “Remember how everyone in politics told us we were idiots during the primaries, and how we proved them all wrong? Well, this time is no different.” That bond is why, convention miscues or not, I doubt Stuart Stevens is going anywhere between now and Election Day.

Follow me on twitter: @noamscheiber

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