It is worse than trite, it is downright tautological, to observe that in American presidential elections, there are always winners and losers. But bear with me for a moment. I mean to say that winners win, and losers lose. No, that’s not much of an improvement. What I am really trying to get at is that the outcomes of our elections (as Julia Shaw pointed out recently here at Public Discourse) are not foreordained by ineluctable forces of history.
More than that: neither is any victorious candidate, whether an incumbent or not, simply bound to win because of his record, his character, the condition of the country, media bias, events during the campaign, or the mood of the electorate. Nor is any defeated candidate simply bound to lose for any such reasons.
The independent variable above all others in our elections is the actions of the candidates during the campaign—their words and deeds—and these actions are above all matters of choice on their parts. Prudent or canny choices on one side, and imprudent or dunderheaded choices on the other, account more powerfully for the outcome than the GDP, the inflation and unemployment rates, or crises in international affairs. Winners are responsible, never entirely but always in part, for winning, and losers likewise for losing.
As Shaw observes, “the 2012 election was a could-win election for the Republicans. Could is the key word.” To defeat an incumbent is always an uphill struggle, but it was certainly not the case in 2012 that President Barack Obama could not have been beaten. And it is false that Mitt Romney was a man who could not have beaten him. He could have. Why didn’t he?
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a Hudson Institute senior fellow, former senior editor of Commentary, and veteran observer of national security and foreign affairs, is well-positioned to fill in some of the reasons that Mitt Romney did not win a winnable—albeit long-shot—presidential election. (Full disclosure: Schoenfeld was affiliated with the Witherspoon Institute prior to his employment in the Romney campaign, and I commented on the book in draft form.)
First writing for the Romney campaign as an outside consultant, he joined the operation full-time in the late summer of 2011 as a writer of speeches and other campaign materials, and remained a campaign senior adviser to the bitter end. In his brisk new e-book, A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign: An Insider’s Account, Schoenfeld looks backward and forward from one pivotal day in the campaign—September 11, 2012—that exemplified both cause and effect of Romney’s loss, along several dimensions.
September 11, 2012, was the “Bad Day” of the title because of the Romney campaign’s egregious misstep, taken in response to the news that anti-American mobs were engaged in violent attacks on our diplomatic missions in Cairo, Egypt and Benghazi, Libya.
Our embassy in Cairo put out a statement in apologetic tones about “misguided individuals” (alluding to an obscure videomaker) who “hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” Without taking the time to get their facts straight—and ignoring a prior decision, made at the highest levels, that this anniversary would not be a day for partisan assaults on the president—the campaign’s top foreign policy hands put out a statement that night, in Romney’s voice and with his approval, that claimed that “the Obama administration’s first response” to the news out of the Middle East was “to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
When it turned out that the true object of this criticism was not “the Obama administration” but a foreign service officer in Cairo acting contrary to orders, and that subsequent events proved even worse, with the death of the American ambassador to Libya and three others in Benghazi, Romney looked like a desperate candidate who had gone off half-cocked, acting opportunistically on incomplete information at a moment of crisis in our foreign affairs.
As more facts came to light about Benghazi that made the president and his administration look bad—as inept or deceptive or both—Romney was in no convincing position to take a just advantage of Obama’s shortcomings or vulnerabilities. Thus, on the subject of Benghazi, the Republican candidate was effectively muzzled in his debates with the incumbent, and the president won through to November with no substantial electoral damage from this event.
How did the Romney campaign put itself in a position where it was practically compelled to forfeit a serious foreign-policy issue to the president? Therein lies the burden of Schoenfeld’s book, which convincingly argues that Mitt Romney surrounded himself with “professionals” in the campaign business who served him ill, especially with respect to his own lack of experience in the field of foreign affairs, time after time.
Moreover, these hacks and flacks turned a man with considerable virtues—smart, likable, and highly capable—into a candidate easily caricatured as plutocratic, out of touch, and unprepared for real leadership. They pursued a “technocratic” and “preposterously robotic approach” to scripting the campaign, animated by a “crude materialist conception of politics” in which the candidate needs only to be packaged like the latest in whitening toothpastes in order to win.
Sadly, Romney himself evidently bought this view of our political order, as he demonstrated in his infamous comment that 47 percent of the electorate had already been bought off by President Obama’s determination to make them dependent on the government. And Romney hired the “professionals” who thought this way, and signed off on their strategy—and so to a large extent deserved his fate on election day. The country, on the other hand, deserved better.
Schoenfeld focuses most consistently on what he knows best—the field of international relations and national security—without pretending that the Romney campaign’s missteps in this field can comprehensively explain its defeat. But the campaign’s largest strategic error was of enormous dimensions: the decision to make the challenge to Obama turn entirely on the state of the domestic economy, and the president’s record on that front. This could be seen as playing to Romney’s strengths as a businessman and a fairly successful governor, but it meant downplaying, practically to zero, any serious investment of campaign resources in building up Romney where he was obviously weak, on the foreign-policy side. And it too reflected a purblind understanding of what voters care about, or can be persuaded to care about.
Aside from chief strategist Stuart Stevens, probably the most powerful figure in the Romney campaign was Lanhee Chen, a four-degree product of Harvard in his early thirties who was “senior policy adviser” on both domestic and foreign affairs, but who appears to have known essentially nothing in the latter field.
Working under him was his even younger friend Alex Wong, who knew more than Chen but was still too inexperienced to be saddled with the heavy responsibilities of “foreign-policy coordinator.” Between them, Chen and Wong formed a nearly impenetrable screen between Romney and the outside foreign-policy experts the campaign had itself engaged to give the candidate advice. It seems that they did not want anyone questioning their own acumen, nor their prior decision that time spent on foreign policy was a “costly distraction” from hammering on the Obama record on the domestic economy.
And so Mitt Romney stumbled from one gaffe to the next in the field where all Americans recognize that the president has unique and nearly exclusive responsibilities—the conduct of American diplomacy and the safeguarding of the nation’s safety and interests.
Whether it was commenting on the Chinese government’s treatment of the dissident Chen Guangcheng; or engaging and then losing a campaign foreign policy spokesman because of a vetting failure; or the candidate stepping all over his own message on a visit to London; or an eleventh-hour draft of a national convention speech that conspicuously failed to mention that the nation was at war or to thank the troops fighting overseas—time and again, the campaign suffered from its complete absence of any senior adviser on foreign policy who could have the candidate’s ear at will or travel with him as needed. When the anniversary of September 11 arrived, a pop quiz on foreign affairs gravitas was sprung on Mitt Romney and his campaign, and they flunked it.
Schoenfeld is candid about his own helplessness, one rung down from the Stevens-Chen-Wong level of the campaign, to do anything about what he was witnessing as it happened. Though he was senior in years to the young chieftains, he lacked any prior experience in the “profession” of electoral politics; he was hired for his considerable gifts as a writer but had not previously written speeches for other men’s voices and rhythms, and he reports that the campaign “burned through” speechwriters one after another.
But as an analyst and commentator on American national security policy and foreign affairs who has followed politics closely as a journalist for a long time, Schoenfeld’s “insider’s account” shows the virtues of an outsider who got inside for a look. Unlike his erstwhile campaign colleagues, he has no future career in electoral campaigns to guard and protect. And one detects no wounded pride in him, no rancorous recriminations for not having been better appreciated by Romney or his top people.
So, standing now outside the suffocating house afire that was the campaign, and viewing the smoldering wreckage of it, he asks, what were these people missing about American politics that they should have understood? What was at the root of their strategic errors? Here is Schoenfeld’s answer, a painful one to give for an author who professes a lingering fondness for the candidate he served:
A pinched understanding of human motivation led Romney to believe that a significant fraction of the voters had been bought off. They would be unalterably closed to his arguments no matter how cogent they were. That same pinched understanding led him to say things that repeatedly earned him opprobrium. It also led him to choose campaign strategists who reduced the high art of democratic politics—persuasion through reason and rhetoric, the heart of genuine political leadership—to the low crafts of polling and advertising.
The value of A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign, for conservatives but not only for them, is its warning that our political life is too important to be turned over to the cynical “professionals” who promise better electoral results through more sophisticated data crunching and sales methods. What conservatives—but not only they—need to relearn is the meaning of statesmanship. This small book is a spur to such relearning.
Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute.