Wrong Move?

Romney Cuts Loose O'Donnell, Perhaps Out of Ego

Michelle Cottle on how Romney cut loose his debate adviser out of ego.

Not that anyone doubted Romney would win Nevada, what with the state’s sizable Mormon contingent and his boffo showing there in 2008. Even so, the governor’s team must be feeling pretty good with another win under its belt, especially as the heretofore frenetic cage match enters a bit of a lull. Between now and the 10-state Super Tuesday voting extravaganza on March 6, Romney faces only a couple of friendly primaries, one debate, and next week’s CPAC conference.

During this period of relative clam, the once-again-frontrunning governor would do well to slow his hamster wheel, take a deep breath, and think hard about how not to screw things up with unforced errors stemming from what everyone outside his immediate family recognizes as Mitt’s lack of comfort in his own skin. You know: the kind of stumbling about that leads Mittens to blithely announce that he doesn’t give a crap about poor people.

This is not to suggest that Romney should aspire to megalomania of Newtonian proportions. (God forbid!) It would be nice, however, if the governor could work through some of the core insecurities that seem to have led him this week to cut loose debate adviser Brett O’Donnell, reportedly out of fear that O’Donnell was stealing the candidate’s thunder.

For those not obsessively following Romneyworld, O’Donnell is the former Michele Bachmann aide who, in the wake of the congresswoman’s departure, has been unofficially advising Mitt. A former debate coach for the Jerry Falwell–founded Liberty University (one of the nation’s collegiate-debating powerhouses), O’Donnell was seen as a driving force behind the governor’s transformation in the Florida debates from Gingrich whipping boy to red-hot alpha male.

Alas, instead of winning O’Donnell a formal spot in Romneyworld, his flattering media mentions earned the veteran operative a swift kick in the crotch. As Politico reported Saturday, not one, not two, but three Romney staffers called up O’Donnell post-debate to gripe that he was getting too much attention. In response to a New York Times online article that praised O’Donnell too much for Team Romney’s taste, chief strategist Stuart Stevens instructed O’Donnell to call the reporter and ask that his role be downplayed in the subsequent print version of the story.

Not that O’Donnell was the only source of agita inside Romneyworld. Of the fallout from the Times’s article, Politico noted:

The piece, said one campaign insider, made the candidate himself “seem like an afterthought in reviving his own campaign.” The campaign held a conference call this week, multiple sources said, in which a clear message was delivered—Romney pulled himself back from the brink after South Carolina, and no one else did it for him.

On Monday, the candidate himself got snippy when Today’s Matt Lauer asked about the article:

“I think you can expect advisers to think that the work of advisers is very, very important, but frankly, I think if you’re to go back and look at where the sentiment changed, it was with the debates.”

Translation: Screw you, Matt! I didn’t need no stinking help taking down that Georgia dough boy.

Now, I can see a certain logic to Romney’s getting all chest-thumpy about this. For a guy considered limp and ineffectual throughout much of this race, getting a little feisty could even be considered smart strategy.

By contrast, what looks like a much worse strategy: casting off O’Donnell.

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Assuming that the adviser indeed played a significant role in helping Romney find his groove, the campaign should have held on to him so tightly that his circulatory system was compromised. If they thought he was talking out of school to reporters—and here it should be noted that O’Donnell does not have a reputation as a self-promoter—then they should’ve dealt with that problem separately: yelled at him, banned him from speaking to the media, taken away his iPhones.

Jerk the guy into line, but for God’s sake don’t let him take his talent elsewhere! How many times have we heard variations on the theme: part of being a great leader is surrounding yourself with the best people available?

With presidential combatants, a fat ego comes with the territory. What you don’t want is a candidate whose ego is so delicate that it can’t stand the indignity of anyone else getting any credit. That sort of thinking prompts leaders to surround themselves with people whose chief qualification is that they won’t overshadow the principle. Next stop, mediocrity.

Maybe there’s more to this O’Donnell affair than meets the eye. Maybe the guy was, in fact, delivering really bad advice. Or alienating the rest of the staff with his obnoxious manner or noxious body odor. Maybe he was caught groping a campaign intern or telling anti-Mormon jokes in the spin room.

I kinda hope so. Because the thought of the guy who saved Romney’s debate bacon getting kicked to the curb because he bruised the candidate’s fragile sense of self is depressing—and a potentially disturbing sign of future turmoil.

If the Republican electorate wanted this kind of self-dramatizing nonsense, why bother with uptight, buttoned-down Mitt? They could’ve gone with the puffed-up birthday clown who just endorsed him: The Donald.