The Romney campaign has suddenly turned into a circular firing squad.
For weeks now, the candidate has appeared to stumble and fumble away opportunities, triggering a near panic among conservative commentators who never much liked the guy in the first place. But now the backstabbing has spread to the inner circle, as if demoralized advisers are trying to assign blame in advance for an inevitable defeat.
And just as Romney was trying to dig his way out of one negative news cycle, he bumbled into another that is potentially far worse. In a video from a private fundraiser posted by Mother Jones, the candidate appeared to insult half the country as freeloaders. There are 47 percent of Americans who will automatically vote for Obama, he said, “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them … These are people who pay no income tax.”
To tell donors that these voters are Democrats because they want to gobble up entitlement dollars while paying no tax reinforces every stereotype about an unsympathetic investment banker—and that audio is already playing in a continuous loop on cable news.
At a brief session with reporters in California on Monday night, Romney essentially stood by his remarks, while conceding they were “not elegantly stated. I was speaking off the cuff in response to a question.” Romney did not address having called those receiving government aid victims, insisting that “I want to help all Americans.”
The knives were already out for Stuart Stevens, the Romney campaign’s chief strategist, speechmaker, and advertising guru, who also doubles as an unofficial press secretary. Fairly or unfairly, he is being blamed for an ultra-cautious effort that has failed to inspire Republicans and an underwhelming convention that has left him trailing President Obama.
“With Stuart trying to do all the things he is doing, I’m amazed he hasn’t broken down already,” says Ed Rollins, the Republican strategist who ripped Michele Bachmann’s presidential bid after quitting as her campaign strategist. “He’s an extremely talented guy. But I knew sooner or later this would surface. There are always lots of people willing to point fingers when you’re not doing well.”
Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who has done battle with Stevens, says: “I’m sure there are people who resent Stevens and his power and his sway over the candidate, or blame him for things the candidate decides. I know he’s a character and drives some conservatives crazy. But I have a lot of respect for that guy.”
The internal grumbling burst into public view Sunday night with a Politico piece saying that “Stevens has taken the brunt of the blame for an unwieldy campaign structure,” with unnamed advisers taking potshots at various decisions and, in one case, his allegedly “goofy quotes.” Stevens, who told Politico the campaign is “very collegial” and “everybody wears a lot of hats,” declined to comment on Monday.
The campaign’s reaction was dismissive. “Inside baseball accounts just don’t matter to the voter in Ohio or Florida without a job in this economy,” Romney spokesman Kevin Madden told me. “The team is focused on working together to help the governor get his message out over the next 50 days. That’s all we’re focused on.”
A senior Romney adviser, who declined to be identified, told me the Politico story, with its portrait of a dysfunctional Boston headquarters, is way off the mark. “This is part of a ridiculous media narrative that this race is all but over,” the adviser says. “A race that is inside the margin of error with an incumbent president under 50. They got a bounce from their convention, but check out the numbers … The target states are all tight as a tick.”
Recalling the atmosphere surrounding George W. Bush’s campaign in September 2000, this person says there was “lots of talk about shakeups in Austin. Like there, the inner circle in Boston is tight-knit and tested, focused on the things that matter. We believe Romney is going to win.”
Perhaps the most damaging disclosure by Politico was of the chaotic process that produced Mitt Romney’s speech in Tampa. Stevens assigned the speech to former Bush White House aide Pete Wehner, junked that version, got another speech from a pair of Bush campaign veterans, killed all but one paragraph, and wound up assembling the speech himself with Romney’s help. The result was a less-than-soaring ovation and a night remembered mainly for Clint Eastwood’s bizarre empty-chair routine—which also is being blamed on Stevens.
The Romney adviser insisted the speech was “a big success” while Obama’s address “got panned”—but the press portrayal has been that the Republicans blew their opportunity in Tampa. And now Stevens is taking the heat for it.
“When you win, you’re a genius,” says Chip Saltsman, who ran Mike Huckabee’s 2008 White House effort. “When you lose, you’re the biggest idiot who ever came to play. I’ve been a campaign manager where everyone was critical of me. I got credit for things I didn’t know I did, and people blamed the shit out of me for what went wrong.”
The striking thing here is that for all of Romney’s recent problems, he still trails an incumbent president by only a few percentage points. Given the anemic economy and three upcoming debates, he is hardly out of the game.
Rollins calls the sniping “definitely out of proportion. This is still a campaign that’s winnable.” The question for Romney’s brain trust, he says, is whether “you spend a lot of time focused on that crap or get back to winning Florida, Virginia, and Ohio.”
But Chris Lehane, a top strategist in Al Gore’s presidential effort, which went through three managers, says the narrative is particularly damaging to Romney. “Voters extrapolate a lot from the process of your campaign,” Lehane says. “His argument is that you’re supposed to be hiring a manager. If you’re spending a couple of news cycles trying to explain why your campaign is not in disarray, you’re not communicating effectively with voters.”
The dynamics are familiar to Trippi, who ran Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign but was not publicly criticized until after the candidate lost Iowa and soon quit as campaign manager. “Every campaign’s got factions,” he says. “But generally you don’t see it out in the open, particularly a campaign like Romney’s, where they’ve been so good at stopping leaks.”
The internal turmoil, exaggerated or not, highlights a situation in which the nominee has been unable to get much traction and is frequently thrown off message, from the Olympics controversy in London to his brief embrace of aspects of Obamacare to his quick-trigger response to the fatal attack on American diplomats in Libya.
“There have obviously been some fundamental problems with this campaign from the beginning,” Saltsman says. “But they were able to get by with money. The economy is hugely important, but they still haven’t given us any reason to vote for Mitt Romney.”
Stevens worked for Romney’s first presidential bid in 2008, after two tours with the winning Bush campaigns, and no one expects the former Massachusetts governor to dump him in mid-September. He has kept the campaign focused almost exclusively on the economy, and Romney has drawn criticism for devoting much of his energy to bashing Obama while offering few specifics on what he would do on taxes, Medicare, and Afghanistan, among other issues.
Stevens is an eclectic fellow who has dabbled in television screenplays and once wrote a book about eating his way across Europe. He knew what he was signing up for. In a campaign, he told me in 2001, “You exist in a world in which everything outside of that bubble seems abnormal. It’s very difficult to talk to anyone who is not involved in the process. It makes your reality more distorted.”
The Mississippi native is also refreshingly frank about the dark arts of campaigning. During the summer of 2000, when Bush was slipping in the polls, Stevens later acknowledged, “I was confident we could come up with a spin—you could spin anything if you did it with enough confidence—but it would be one of the more tortured spins.”
To say there is nothing wrong with the Romney campaign right now would be a tortured spin indeed. But it’s important to keep things in perspective.
Political junkies and journalists tend to obsess on who’s up and who’s down among campaign advisers, the kind of scorekeeping that matters little to voters. But strategists serve as key sources for the press, and some of them—Karl Rove, James Carville, Steve Schmidt—wind up larger-than-life figures featured in books and movies.
Still, blaming advisers for political difficulties misses the larger point, that the candidate is ultimately responsible not only for his message but for the startup company he has created to support him. Romney, as a career management consultant, has to show that he can manage a major-league campaign. And if he can’t, the fault lies not in Stuart Stevens but in himself.