On this very day eight years ago, the Washington Post published a front-page story highlighting the tensions roiling within John Kerry’s floundering campaign after the candidate’s “disappointing performance over the past month.” The story, by Post reporters Mark Leibovich and Jim VandeHei, quoted prominent Democrat Tony Coelho as saying, “There is a sense of disarray on that campaign that everyone is talking about.”
This time around, it is Mitt Romney’s campaign that is purportedly in pre-debate disarray. Politico hit the tweet spot with a Sunday article – written by Mike Allen and, yes, Jim VandeHei – ballyhooing the “internal sniping about not only Romney but also his mercurial campaign muse,” Stuart Stevens. The key anecdotes pivot around the role of Stevens, a veteran Republican imagemaker, in derailing two separate Bush-era speechwriting teams assigned to work on the convention acceptance speech. The actual Romney speech, written by the candidate and Stevens, was vague, forgettable and over-shadowed by Clint Eastwood’s chair.
Speech drafts are a particularly contentious topic in most presidential campaigns – and quite a few White Houses as well. (That part I can testify to as a former presidential speechwriter). But the Politico article went beyond convention oratory to stress the nature of Romney’s messy campaign organizational structure. With Stevens juggling three roles (chief strategist, admaker and speechwriter), Politico reports, “Romney associates are baffled that such a successful corporate leader has created a team with so few lines of authority or accountability.”
Some of Romney’s problems relate to poll numbers rather personnel policies. In presidential politics, successful campaigns never are afflicted with internal problems nor are they saddled with staffers willing to grouse to the press. If the candidate wins the White House, then the media lionizes his lucky advisers as the greatest array of strategic thinkers since Clausewitz sipped Camparis with Machiavelli.
Defeat, on the other hand, means that the nominee’s advisers never should have been entrusted with a political race more challenging than a campaign for middle school lunch-room monitor. That’s why Kerry, John McCain, Al Gore and Bob Dole are all still ridiculed for their dysfunctional campaigns. And, if Obama were to lose in November, it is unlikely that South African telecom companies again will be eager to pay David Plouffe $100,000 to give two speeches.
Still, Romney does seem the least likely presidential nominee in memory to have staff turmoil spill all over the news media just seven weeks before the election. The Republican challenger may not inspire or articulate a vision much beyond opposing Barack Obama. But Romney’s record is all about managing complex institutions, whether they were Bain Capital, the 2002 Winter Olympics or the 14th largest state in the union.
That is why the Politico story carries more relevance to Romney in the White House than would a similar story about a candidate who never managed any entity larger than a Senate office. Obama, who is on his third White House chief of staff (his fourth if you count Pete Rouse, who served in an interim role), has done little in office to suggest that he is the 21st-century’s answer to Peter Drucker as a management theorist. The confusing and cross-cutting twin roles of Valerie Jarrett as first adviser and first friend fly in the face of an orderly White House staff structure devoid of back-channel routes to the president.
But unless I missed it amid all the paeans to hope and change in 2008, Candidate Obama never touted his private-sector expertise or his management talents as turn-around artist. In contrast, Romney – who has spent more time running for president than serving in political office – has repeatedly invoked his business background as the primary rationale for why he should be president.
Constructing a presidential campaign over 18 months is an infinitely easier task than putting together a Cabinet and a White House staff during the 75 days of transition between Election Day and Inauguration Day. The demands on Romney as a newly elected president would defy anything that this Harvard M.B.A. has experienced in either business or government.
Without being able to use money as a motivator as he did at Bain Capital, Romney not only would have to make permanent staffing decisions but also he would be accountable as president for everyone’s performance beginning on the afternoon of January 20, 2013. In a political campaign, you can layer over people who are not performing rather than directly removing them. In the White House, a president has to live with his maladroit pick for national security adviser or face a news media firestorm over a public firing.
The good news for Romney is that in just 50 days his presidential campaign will automatically self-destruct with the arrival of Election Day. If the Republican nominee flunks out of the Electoral College, then the Politico story will provide a framework for the inevitable news stories and books about how Romney grabbed defeat out of the jaws of victory. And if it is to be President Romney, then the 45th holder of that title can learn from the apparent mistakes he made in putting together his Boston-based campaign staff.