Over at Powerline this morning Romney speechwriter, Gabriel Schoenfeld, presents a nutshell statement of the thesis of his new e-book – A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign: An Insider’s Account:
What does Mitt Romney’s defeat last November mean for the future of the Republican party? One’s answer hinges, in large measure, on one’s understanding of what caused Romney to lose to a remarkably vulnerable incumbent….
…I try to account for a long chain of mistakes that led the campaign to misfire in the middle of the national-security crisis that erupted in Cairo and Benghazi on September 11, 2012. As I attempt to show, the errors made in that episode did not happen in a vacuum. Rather, they were one of the consequences of a vision of American politics embraced by Romney and his top strategists. The problem before them in the quest for the presidency was, at its core, conceived of as an advertising and marketing challenge.
That vision of politics failed and the consultants Romney hired—if not political consultants as a class—are now fighting for their livelihoods, if not their lives. “Should We Shoot All the Consultants Now?” was the title of a panel discussion held at a recent conservative conclave. As that blunt question makes plain, at least some Republicans comprehend that turning politics into nothing more than a subsidiary of the advertising and marketing business, as the Romney campaign attempted to do, is the path to repeated failure.
The RNC postmortem does not beat around the bush. Politics, in its vision, is the art of best matching a candidate’s positions to the preferences of voters as those preferences are revealed in polls and focus groups. To this end, great weight is placed in the report on the urgency of gathering ever more information about the electorate. In particular, explains the report, “we need to know what language is most likely to motivate a donor or a voter and convert them into a vote for Republican candidates.” To discover exactly the right collection of words—the magical incantation— for getting votes, the “use of data and measurement is critical.”
The RNC’s quest for better data so that it can have better “messaging” is not a mechanism for leadership. It is a mechanism for following the crowd. There is a notable irony here; the professionals are proposing not only the degradation of deliberative democracy, but also a mechanism for losing race after race. Voters do not need to “run a pretest” to identify and be repelled by a candidate who is painstakingly cleaving to the incantations derived from focus groups and polls.
Both as a candidate and as a president, George W. Bush had his share of defects. But one of the reasons he twice won presidential elections is that he was exactly who he said he was. Voters could tell, and they liked that in a leader. Both as a man and as a governor, Mitt Romney had his share of virtues, and no doubt they would have been on display had he become president. But one of the reasons he lost twice is that he was often not who he said he was. Voters could tell that, too—the artificiality of his focus-group-chosen language was often striking—and they did not like it at all. A good marketing team would have understood that packaging Mitt Romney as something he was not was a mistake. Indeed, a really good marketing team would not have packaged him at all. They would have let this impressive man be himself.
More pertinently, this impressive man could himself have chosen to remain himself. David Frum maintains that Romney, one of the Republican Party’s “most articulate and intelligent standard-bearers in decades,” was “forced” by ideological conservatives “to jettison his own best self and best judgment.” There is of course something to this argument. Conservatives in key states, the argument continues, have a lock on the primary process. If Romney had not concealed his true moderate self and tacked to the right, he would have had little chance of capturing the Republican nomination. We cannot rerun history backward to see if such an analysis is correct. But a case can be made that voters of every stripe, including conservatives, would have had far more respect for Romney if he had resisted the conservative Siren calls to sail in their direction and, instead of posing as a “severe conservative,” had stood fast for what he believed.
In the wake of defeat, the Republican Party needs to strike out in a radically new direction—actually, not a radically new direction, but a radically old one–a conservative one, one in which “intuition, gut instincts, [and] ‘traditional’ ways of doing things,” the very things that the GOP professionals would mindlessly toss away, are again properly valued. Recapturing the White House will be difficult, but all the same it is simpler than the professionals would have us believe. We don’t need the APIs and other gizmos and the data analytic institute that they are recommending. What we need is a candidate who understands the country and its problems, is knowledgeable about its history, has a vision for its future, doesn’t buy the snake oil that the consultants are peddling, and unabashedly says what he believes. Mitt Romney could have been that candidate. Sadly, this man of so much promise and ability chose a different path.
I was neither as close to the campaign as Schoenfeld, nor am I a political pro, nor have I read the book, but reacting to this pocket argument, I think it suffers from two glaring problems. Problem one is that the candidate that did beat Romney in the last election won precisely because he did the data stuff that Schoenfeld argues against so much better than Romney. If you want to talk about a gap between the candidate’s “true” nature and his campaign rhetoric you need look no further than Barack Obama. Whether Schoenfeld wants to admit it or not, the stuff he says is inadequate just won two presidential elections. It is infuriating, particularly for conservatives, that image triumphs over substance, but here we are. Maybe Schoenfeld addresses this in the book, but if he does not, I would have to find the book as woefully short-sighted.
Now, that said, I too prefer a world where such apparent subterfuge is not the stuff of politics. And, I cannot disagree that conservatives, far more than liberals, tend to see through such and it can serve as a de-energizer for the base, but one must remember that elections are won by holding the base and winning the middle, not playing to the base. Barack Obama seems to make it transparent that such is how to win the middle. From this perspective, that means the base has got to wise up just a bit, Lord knows the liberal base has.
As to Romney “being himself” – here is where the second issue arises that this pocket presentation does not address. Conventional wisdom is that Romney lost the 2008 primary precisely because, a) his strategy hinged on winning Iowa, and b) far right conservatives and Evangelicals in Iowa organized against him precisely because he is a Mormon. Therefore, one must conclude that even if his strategy in 2012 did not hinge on Iowa, he had to de-emphasize his faith. And yet, his faith is precisely at the core of “himself” – I do know he and his family well enough to know that to be definitively true. You simply cannot talk about what Romney “should have done” without a serious discussion of how to handle his faith. Again, maybe the book does so, but this synopsis does not and therefore makes the book unattractive to this reader.
There is a two-way street here. Republican candidates might be more tempted to move to the right if they right were not so fickle, but Romney’s two campaigns seem to illustrate that moving to the right is not enough. In 2008 he was sincerely himself and could not get out of the primaries because of his ideology. If Schoenfeld is to be believed in 2012 he tried to be something else and THAT is the reason he lost. Somewhere in the mess, the right has got to make peace with compromise – move a bit more to the center. Schoenfeld seems to argue that it is up to the candidate to “lead” them there. I would challenge Schoenfeld to show me exactly where Obama has lead Democrats and how he has done so. They just seem to be smart enough to understand that lining up behind a guy, even if he is not ideal, and getting him elected is the best path to their particular agenda. Is it really too much to ask that of our side?