BOOK REVIEW: ‘A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign’

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A BAD DAY ON THE ROMNEY CAMPAIGN: AN INSIDER’S ACCOUNT
By Gabriel Schoenfeld
InterMix Books, $2.99, 85 page e-book

Not long ago, senior staff levels of presidential campaigns were made up of a mix of longtime staffers of the candidate, some political professionals and some specialists in issues. Today, professional political consultants rule, and their emphasis is on data-driven “messaging” and advertising decisions. There is a rigidity to the formulas they create that leaves little room for the candidate to change his message to fit quickly changing circumstances. At least it didn’t leave Mitt Romney much room.

This did work for President Obama, where the targets were minorities, students and unmarried women. The messages aimed at them were pushed relentlessly, along with a subtext intended to destroy Mr. Romney’s reputation. For Mr. Romney, on the other hand, the unvarying message was economic competency and business success, with no room left to counter the Obama attacks on his character or to deal with foreign affairs.

For two years, Gabriel Schoenfeld was part of the Romney team as a speechwriter. A Hudson Institute senior fellow, he came to the campaign experience as a solid issues analyst and writer. In “A Bad Day On the Romney Campaign,” he gives us a clearly written, frank but nonvituperative analysis of what went wrong in a campaign against an incumbent grappling with a bad economy.

He opens the book with this question: “Why did Mitt Romney, a man in possession of a formidable intelligence, sterling character, a long record of accomplishments in both business and politics and Hollywood good looks, fail to unseat a highly vulnerable president?”

His answer: The rigidity of the message played out in a series of missteps. The staffer who actually made the major decisions originally signed on as the campaign’s advertising man. He had worked on several unsuccessful presidential campaigns. Mr. Romney’s top policy adviser was a bright 33-year-old whose specialty was health care. He thought so little of foreign policy that he once boasted he could not find Finland on a map. He jealously guarded his access to the candidate and trusted only his loyal deputy. The campaign had no senior foreign-policy adviser and, although there was an advisory panel of experienced world-affairs experts, their advice was rarely sought.

This lack caused repeated problems. As do most presidential campaigns, Mr. Romney’s planned a trip to foreign capitals. For July 2012, the staff picked Britain, Israel and Poland, all intended to impress domestic U.S. constituencies. The author writes, “It just might have helped if a senior foreign-policy adviser or … spokesman or both had been there to guide Romney through the hoops … .” There was neither.

Overseas trips by candidates involve such hoops. Before Ronald Reagan’s winning 1980 campaign, the senior staff made a conscious decision to do the foreign travel one full year before the campaign had its initial launch. That far ahead there was no argument between the “policy” and “political” people over the use of the candidate’s time, and two trips — Asia and Europe — did what they were intended to do: refresh the candidate’s knowledge and credentials, and play back well — by reflection — to U.S. foreign-policy communities and media.

Mr. Romney, on the other hand, landed in London with no experienced foreign-policy hand at his side to guide him around potholes. He immediately fell into two of them: First, by telling the media what he had talked about with the head of MI6, the United Kingdom’s foreign intelligence service. This was a serious breach of protocol. Then, visiting the Summer Olympics sites (Mr. Romney had rescued the 2000 Winter Olympics) he announced on television that there was a “disconcerting” lack of preparation for the forthcoming event. In one sentence, he had insulted the entire country.

The next stop, Israel, went far better because the campaign at the last minute dropped a seasoned hand, Dan Senor, into Jerusalem to be at the candidate’s side. In Poland, the final stop, Mr. Romney was visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, hallowed ground, when a young campaign press aide, annoyed by reporters, said “Kiss my –.” This, then, became the story out of Poland.

Next, in his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Mr. Romney failed to mention our wars in Iran and Afghanistan or to pay tribute to our fighting men and women. Most candidates get a “bounce” in polls from their conventions. Mr. Romney did not.

The final and perhaps most serious mistakes revolved around the Benghazi, Libya, attack. Well before facts were known that night of Sept. 11, his campaign issued a statement blasting the Obama administration. Then, in the final debate — with many facts known — he failed to nail Mr. Obama on the terrorist cause of the attack.

Much as he liked and admired Mr. Romney, the author concludes that most of the campaign’s shortcomings — inexperienced senior staff with too much power, not enough seasoned outside advice — stemmed from Mr. Romney’s “conception of politics as a marketing and advertising challenge.”

This is a book potential 2016 candidates and staff members should read.

Peter Hannaford held senior positions in Ronald Reagan’s 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns. His most recent book was “Presidential Retreats” (Threshold Editions, 2012).

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