A month before the Iowa caucuses, most campaign coverage pivots around breathless questions with the staying power of a Kardashian marriage. Will Mitt Romney go all-out in Iowa? Can Newt Gingrich develop a ground game? Should Herman Cain reassess himself off the political stage? Yet while horse-race strategies dominate cable TV chatter, they do not provide clues about how a victorious Republican might govern from the Oval Office.
So how do we predict presidential performance?
Not by parsing position papers. Too often what a candidate talks about on the campaign trail has scant connection with his posture in the White House. George W. Bush belittled "nation building" in a 2000 debate with Al Gore. Barack Obama trumpeted his opposition to a health-care mandate nearly four years ago during his primary race against Hillary Clinton.
When we elect a president, Americans instinctively grasp that we are choosing a leader who will have to respond to unforeseen crises. That is why voters place such a premium on the personality and biographies of the candidates. But too often news nuggets that illuminate a candidate's character and decision-making style get lost in the hurly-burly of daily campaign coverage.
A prime example of what gets overlooked appeared this week in the first short installment of Politico's campaign ebook, Playbook 2012: The Right Fights Back. Written hastily by Mike Allen and Evan Thomas, the ebook boasts the literary grace of Politico's collected tweets from the campaign trail. Too often the narrative reflects the narrow worldview of campaign consultants. (For example, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry are all belittled for not making enough fund-raising calls.) But still The Right Fights Back offers intriguing, if fleeting, character sketches of the Republican contenders.
An anecdote or a quote that illuminates one aspect of a candidate's personality tends to be suggestive rather than a Rosetta Stone that decodes everything at once. The Politico ebook and several magazine profiles that were published this week provide hints of Romney's micro-managing; of Gingrich's trouble with personnel, as he is unable to explain why he originally hired a traditional staff for an unorthodox campaign; and Rick Perry's bafflement that charm alone is not sufficient in presidential politics. These are not definitive judgments so much as tiles in a mosaic that will not be completely filled in even on Election Day 2012.
What we learned this week:
Mitt Romney: New anecdotes about the former Massachusetts governor are doled out as parsimoniously as dinner in a Dickensian orphanage. That is why it is telling that both the Politico ebook and a New York Times Magazine profile by Robert Draper both contain the oft-told tale that Romney wrote his own 2010 book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. Presumably, this factoid was deliberately leaked twice to underscore Romney's unswerving fidelity to every policy position that he has taken, er, very recently.
There is enough detail about Romney the Writer in the ebook and the magazine article to suggest that this story is not only self-serving but also actually true. Romney, who has a proprietary sense about his words, balked at dictating his thoughts to a ghostwriter who would then write draft chapters. In the end, Romney produced a first draft and then his collaborator added a spit shine and some polish. None of this should suggest that Romney is a great natural stylist. An unnamed aide, quoted in the New York Times Magazine piece, recalls saying during the 2008 campaign, "We're not very happy with our speechwriter, and we want to fire him. His name's Mitt, and he works on the third floor."
Reading words that a candidate has actually written is one of the best ways to try to divine how his mind works. In imagining Romney as a possible 45th president, we should never lose sight of his hyper-rational background as a business consultant. It is evident in sentences like this from No Apology: "Our economy is powered by two pistons--the first is productivity improvement in existing businesses and the second is creation of new businesses." Why am I so sure that Romney composed this passage? Because no ghostwriter would have dared to submit prose this clunkily earnest.
Ever since imagemakers peddled the outlandish notion of a "New Nixon" during the 1968 campaign, political narratives have been built around the way that presidential candidates mature and grow during their quest for power. (Odd how in no other profession do personalities change significantly in one's fifties and sixties). In the Politico ebook, Romney purportedly "seemed more Zen-like" after his 2008 defeat and a senior adviser confided that the candidate now no longer obsesses over "the little things."
This portrayal of Mitt the Mellow is at odds with a new article by Alec MacGillis in The New Republic highlighting the more explosive aspects of Romney's personality. (Disclosure: I am a special correspondent for the magazine). Some of the incidents that MacGillis cites are ancient history: Romney was briefly handcuffed by a Massachusetts park ranger in 1981 in an argument over whether his motorboat registration number had been painted over.
But during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, which he ran, Romney began personally directing traffic when an overly zealous sheriff's deputy refused to allow VIP buses to pass, because they lacked security placards. Another security official, Shaun Knopp, told reporters at the time that Romney unleashed a string of epithets. For his part, Romney insisted that the worst word he used was "H-E double hockey sticks."
Far more worrisome than Romney's ire was his use of this Victorian euphemism to describe Satan's Zip code.
Newt Gingrich: In a political year in which the conventional wisdom has been upended more times than the euro, it is not surprising that the former House speaker--now the surprise leader of the Republican pack--gets only a few walk-ons in The Right Fights Back.
In a mid-November interview with Politico for the ebook, Gingrich lambasted his former campaign advisers, most of whom are now working for Rick Perry. What particularly irked Gingrich was the suggestion that his third wife, Callista, should not campaign in South Carolina for fear of reminding voters of his tangled marital history. As Gingrich put it, without ever acknowledging his mistake in hiring these staffers, "We were surrounded by a bunch of guys who had learned politics 25 years ago and they had no idea how the world had changed."
Rick Perry: Politico's account of the three-term Texas governor's flame-out as a presidential front-runner follows the established story line: Perry was lured into the race believing that it was a cakewalk and only belatedly discovered that it was a fire walk. The Right Fights Back does offer a few telling details like Perry privately bristling after being quizzed in Florida on his policy positions by potential major donors. Afterward a genuinely puzzled Perry asked a staffer, "Why do they need to know my position on global warming? Don't they just like me?"
That quote alone could serve as the epitaph for Perry's presidential ambitions. And, no surprise, the fund-raiser who told that story to Politico has since left the Perry campaign.
Almost all the good stories in The Right Fights Back come from the disillusioned, the disloyal and the dismissed. The advisers for candidates in sight of the nomination (see Romney, Mitt) have no incentive to transcend the banalities of the spin room. That is why campaign books dating back to Theodore White's landmark The Making of the President 1960 appeared only after Election Day. As much as we long for insights about the candidates that go beyond the humdrum details of a new Romney ad in Iowa, Politico's new ebook reminds me of a putdown that Walter Mondale hurled at Gary Hart during the 1984 Democratic primary campaign: "Where's the beef?"
Walter Shapiro is covering his ninth presidential campaign. This is the first in a series of articles examining what we know about the character and personalities of the 2012 candidates.