Bad Strategy

07.27.12

What Richard Nixon Taught Mitt Romney

Mitt clearly does not like being questioned, which is almost understandable, since he saw his father taken down by media mischaracterization. But he seems instead to have adopted the comparatively successful Nixon ’68 campaign’s press strategy, viewing the press as a necessary evil.

Mitt Romney’s missteps in London, where he managed to insult the host country of the Olympic Games and earn a rebuke from the country’s two leading conservatives—Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson—might have brought back uncomfortable memories of his father’s presidential campaign. 

After all, this was supposed to be a softball Olympic photo op, and Romney 2012 is a tight-lipped, risk-averse, highly scripted campaign. 

Not so much Romney 1968. And perhaps not incidentally, Willard Mitt’s campaign seems more informed by Richard Milhous, the man who decisively defeated his father. 

The past is prologue: in 1968, when Romney was just 21, his father’s presidential dreams went up in flames because of his loose-lipped style.  Infamously, and out-of-context, his father said he’d been “brainwashed” on the issue of Vietnam—George Romney was crucified by the press and then buried.  And so young Mitt saw an honorable and accomplished man overwhelmed by unfair ink bought by the barrel.

But the problem was embedded in George Romney’s nature. In Making of the President 1968, Teddy White recounted how George Romney “could not keep himself from answering questions— at length, in the most plodding prose, in open innocent confession of his non-understanding, over and over and over again, to the despair of his staff.” 

This open and innocent approach to speaking with the press is, of course, precisely the opposite of what Mitt Romney has done in this prevent-defense presidential campaign.

The son seems to have overlearned the lessons of the father, treating every open mike as a potential personal insult to the patriarchy. The lifelong executive clearly does not like being questioned. It is almost understandable: he saw his father—an honorable man and successful governor—taken down by the media’s mischaracterization. And so instead, after decades of rumination, he seems to have adopted the comparatively successful Nixon ’68 campaign’s press strategy.

Whereas George Romney was willing to think openly in public, the more experienced Dick Nixon viewed the press as a necessary evil.

Keep in mind that 1968 was not Nixon’s first rodeo—he’d run for president in 1960 and almost won. The New Nixon learned from his mistakes. This time around, he resolved to clamp down on comments to the media, wrapping his reticence in high-minded excuses, such as telling the press that he was too busy writing a speech. He offered one major public event a day as a way of trying to control coverage as much as possible. Channeling the increased influence of television, courtesy of a young aide named Roger Ailes (even then an advocate of “positive polarization”), Nixon preferred to take questions not from the press but from screened citizens in televised town halls. This both played to the candidate’s strengths and avoided awkward “gotcha” questions. 

The son seems to have overlearned the lessons of the father, treating every open mike as a potential personal insult.

The strategy extended to crucial questions of policy. Nixon was a policy wonk who, at his best, enjoyed thinking through solutions to the critical questions of his time. But with the Vietnam War raging under Lyndon Johnson, Nixon walked a difficult line, criticizing the status quo while avoiding specific prescriptions. Instead, he offered “a secret plan to end the war”—labeled “peace with honor.”  And when pressed for specifics, he offered none, saying that details would undercut his negotiating position. This had the added benefit of being true, at least in theory. In practice, he accelerated the hated war before reducing troops and bombing Cambodia. But on a political level, it didn’t matter.

Nothing nearly as sinister is at work here. But the lessons of George Romney’s loss should no longer be persuasive. After all, Nixon ran in the television age, not in a time of social media. Clamping down on unwanted stories simply by not commenting or cooperating can’t work as well. In addition, Romney doesn’t have Nixon’s executive record in government—encapsulated in his rehabilitation book Six Crises—as a rationale to run on. Romney’s one term as governor does not offer many clear accomplishments, other than health-care reform, which he can’t/won’t talk about.

But after three decades of rumination, it’s easy to see how this painful youthful lesson could distort judgment. Suspicion of the media’s malevolent mischief is the rationale Romney uses to refuse to release more than two years’ tax returns, even when his father set the precedent by releasing 12. Likewise, Romney’s supposedly magnanimous refusal to answer questions about foreign-policy specifics fell flat. Here’s Romney pushing back on CNN’s Piers Morgan last night, the first non-Fox cable-news interview he’s done in weeks.

Piers: “How will you be different as a Republican president? How will you avoid the kind of pitfalls perhaps that President Bush fell into?”

Mitt: “Well, first, I have to note that as tradition for our nation, I, being on foreign soil, avoid speaking about a new foreign policy or my foreign policy or doing that in a place that would in any way detract from the president's effort to pursue his own foreign policy. So I really can't—I can't go down that path.”

Bull. There is a distinguished tradition of not criticizing the president of the United States when overseas. But it does not extend to a refusal to detail a candidate’s own foreign-policy plans.

There is an additional downside now. Because when a candidate is on a foreign tour but is reluctant to put forward advisers to talk about foreign policy, they end up talking on background and they say incredibly dumb things, like how the first African-American president has an inability to fully appreciate a shared “Anglo-Saxon heritage.” That might have made even Nixon blush. Attempts to control a story with limited access don’t work as well as they once did. This is an irony of decentralization.

Yes, Nixon’s 1968 strategy did prove more successful than George Romney's approach. But the paranoid distrust of the media ultimately proved the seeds of Nixon’s undoing. You reap what you sow.

Mitt Romney is running for president to create new history. He does not need to remain captive to the lessons he learned from his father’s defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon. Romney is deep down a decent and intelligent man—he should treat the people he is seeking to lead with the same respect. He is his father’s son—not Nixon’s political inheritor.