Monday, September 17, 2012
Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s top strategist, knew his candidate’s convention speech needed a memorable mix of loft and grace if he was going to bound out of Tampa with an authentic chance to win the presidency. So Stevens, bypassing the speechwriting staff at the campaign’s Boston headquarters, assigned the sensitive task of drafting it to Peter Wehner, a veteran of the last three Republican White Houses and one of the party’s smarter wordsmiths.
Not a word Wehner wrote was ever spoken.
Stevens junked the entire thing, setting off a chaotic, eight-day scramble that would produce an hour of prime-time problems for Romney, including Clint Eastwood’s meandering monologue to an empty chair.
Romney’s convention stumbles have provoked weeks of public griping and internal sniping about not only Romney but also his mercurial campaign muse, Stevens. Viewed warily by conservatives, known for his impulsiveness and described by a colleague as a “tortured artist,” Stevens has become the leading staff scapegoat for a campaign that suddenly is behind in a race that had been expected to stay neck and neck through Nov. 6.
This article is based on accounts from Romney aides, advisers and friends, most of whom refused to speak on the record because they were recounting private discussions and offering direct criticism of the candidate and his staff, Stevens in particular.
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Stevens, in a lengthy interview Sunday afternoon, defended the campaign’s performance, refused to discuss internal conversations and insisted Romney is doing far better than the pundits portray. “Like all campaigns, we have good days and bad days. I’m happy to take responsibility for the bad days,” he said. “This is a tremendously talented team.”
To pin recent stumbles on Stevens would be to overlook Romney’s role in all this. As the man atop the enterprise — in effect, the CEO of a $1 billion start-up — Romney ultimately bears responsibility for the decisions he personally oversaw, such as the muffling of running mate Paul Ryan’s strict budget message and his own convention performance.
As the Tampa convention drew near, Wehner, now a “senior adviser” and blogger for the campaign, was laboring under an unusual constraint for the author of a high-stakes political speech. He was not invited to spend time with Romney, making it impossible to channel him fluently.
Nevertheless, Wehner came up with a draft he found pleasing, including the memorable line: “The incumbent president is trying to lower the expectations of our nation to the sorry level of his own achievement. He only wins if you settle.” It also included a reference to Afghanistan, which was jettisoned with the rest of his work.
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Instead, eight days before the convention, at a time when a campaign usually would be done drafting and focused instead on practicing such a high-stakes speech, Stevens frantically contacted John McConnell and Matthew Scully, a speechwriting duo that had worked in George W. Bush’s campaign and White House. Stevens told them they would have to start from scratch on a new acceptance speech. Not only would they have only a few days to write it, but Romney would have little time to practice it.
McConnell and Scully, drawing on their experience writing for Vice President Dick Cheney, were racing to finish the convention speech for Romney’s running mate, Ryan (R-Wis.), the House Budget Committee chairman. It was the Wednesday before convention week. Ryan was to speak the following Wednesday, followed by Romney on Thursday.
The two finished Ryan’s text the next day and started crashing on Romney’s. That weekend, Stevens accompanied Romney as he went to a school auditorium in New Hampshire with his wife, Ann, to practice yet another version of the speech. Only one paragraph from the McConnell-Scully draft wound up being used, about a rose that Romney’s father had put on his mother’s bedside table each day. The speech that was actually delivered, it turned out, had been cobbled together by Stevens and Romney himself.
When asked about the various versions of the convention speech, Stevens said: “The governor writes his speeches.” Pressed on whether he does so with no help, Stevens added: “He reaches out to a lot of people. … We don’t discuss who works on what. It’s all just the Romney campaign. Everything is just the Romney campaign.”
(Also on POLITICO: Mitt Romney RNC speech text, video)
The hasty process resulted in a colossal oversight: Romney did not include a salute to troops serving in war zones, and did not mention Al Qaeda or Afghanistan, putting him on the defensive on national security just as the Middle East was about to erupt. It was also very light on policy specifics, much to the chagrin of conservatives who were certain the addition of Ryan and inclusion of Wehner meant a real battle of ideas was about to begin.
The damage had been compounded when, in compressing the program from four days to three because of a hurricane delay, convention organizers had scrapped a planned remote appearance by Romney and veterans that was to be fed live into the Tampa hall from a speech he was giving to an American Legion convention in Indiana. With the salute-the-troops tribute out, the assumption was Romney would pay tribute to them in the speech. He didn’t.
The convention finale was undermined even further by Eastwood’s rambling comedy routine, which became the only glimpse that many swing voters got of the Republican show. Eastwood had been added to the program after chatting with Romney at a fundraiser in Idaho just weeks before the convention.
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Stevens and his team loved the idea of the tough-talking American icon greeting the millions of viewers tuning in to the main event. But Eastwood, unlike every other speaker at the tightly controlled convention, had free rein to say or do whatever he wanted without the campaign’s approval. Eastwood has said just minutes before going live, he was handed a chair to sit on, which he promptly decided should become a prop in his speech.
Many in the Romney high command watched in fury. Later, a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that for many voters — especially independents and casual viewers, exactly the ones convention organizers hoped to reach — the Eastwood skit, not Romney’s speech, was the highlight of the convention.
(Also on POLITICO: Clint Eastwood RNC speech transcript, video)
As mishaps have piled up, Stevens has taken the brunt of the blame for an unwieldy campaign structure that, as the joke goes among frustrated Republicans, badly needs a consultant from Bain & Co. to straighten it out.
“You design a campaign to reinforce the guy that you’ve got,” said a longtime Romney friend. “The campaign has utterly failed to switch from a primary mind-set to a general-election mind-set, and did not come up with a compelling, policy-backed argument for credible change.”
In what many in the campaign now consider a fundamental design flaw, Stevens is doing three major jobs: chief strategist, chief ad maker and chief speechwriter. It would be as if George W. Bush had run for president in 2000 with one person playing the roles of Karl Rove, Mark McKinnon and Michael Gerson. Or if on the Obama campaign of 2008, David Axelrod had not been backed up by Jim Margolis, Robert Gibbs and Jon Favreau.
Asked if he had assumed too many roles, Stevens said he had big teams to help him in each area. “Everybody wears a lot of hats,” he said. “We’re that kind of campaign — very un-compartmentalized.” He said that making the ads in-house has been a huge advantage. “You can walk down and stick your finger in the cookie batter.”
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Stevens enjoys little of the internal affection that surrounded the brain trusts of the Bush and Obama campaigns. “I always have the impression Stuart must save his best stuff for meetings I’m not important enough to attend,” said one Romney campaign insider. “The campaign is filled with people who spend a lot of their time either avoiding him or resisting him.”
Stevens, who has won a string of U.S. Senate and governor’s races, worked on the Bush campaigns of 2000 and 2004, and was signed up with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, but then switched to Romney.
POLITICO has learned when Romney was gearing up for his 2012 run, he made never-before-reported overtures to Ken Mehlman, the manager of Bush’s campaign, and Mike Murphy, a top strategist who remains close to Romney.
Still, when Romney went for a leaner campaign with fewer consultants, Stevens was left standing. At Romney’s insistence, Stevens and his business partner, Russ Schriefer, went all in, closing the Stevens and Schriefer Group office in Washington and moving into a first-floor warren at Romney headquarters in Boston’s North End.
Schriefer said Stevens “has done a very good job of keeping the campaign focused on a message of jobs and the economy, and focused on what it takes to win.”
“He has a competitive spirit that translates to the rest of the team,” Schriefer said. “When there’s criticism, you’re always going to get people trying to blame someone. This is not something unusual. The important thing is that the campaign is staying very focused. We know what we want to do, and we think we’re in a very good position to win.”
A mad-professor aura, combined with post-midnight calls to sleeping senior staffers, have led some colleagues to express increasing concern about what the campaign is doing to Stevens — and what Stevens is doing to the campaign.
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The GOP convention failed to generate momentum or excitement for Romney — a potentially fatal setback for the struggling campaign. Before that, Romney’s criticism of Olympics organizers just after he landed in London set the tone for a snake-bitten foreign tour that some top campaign officials had argued against taking. Last week, Romney diluted his repeal-“Obamacare” message by saying on“Meet the Press” that he would keep part of the plan. Then Romney’s incendiary late-night statement after the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya led many conservative allies to say he had squandered credibility as a potential commander in chief.
Stevens had vocal internal critics long before the recent blunders. One proposal by the strategist that drew ridicule behind his back envisioned a “Route 66” bus tour along the pre-Interstate, Dust Bowl migration highway. Other advisers argued that Romney hardly needs more retro or nostalgic connotations. That idea morphed into a blander “Every Town Counts” week, hitting smaller population centers of six target states in the Northeast and Midwest.
Asked about the bus-tour ideas, Stevens said: “We bat around a lot of ideas. … The campaign has a very collegial — we have a good locker room. There’s a lot of support, a lot of collaboration, a lot of cross-pollination of idea from across the board.”
But whatever Stevens’s shortcomings, presidential candidates get the campaigns they want. And Romney, who in an interview with POLITICO last month said his leadership style very much centers on having a variety of smart people offering advice and him being the decider, has taken a very active role running his own campaign.
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In a way, that’s the problem. Romney associates are baffled that such a successful corporate leader has created a team with so few lines of authority or accountability.
Romney has allowed seven distinct power centers to flourish inside his campaign, with the strategy pod, headed by Stevens and Schriefer, handling the most essential ingredient — the candidate’s public message and image.
Then there is the conventional staff, led by campaign manager Matt Rhoades, who functions as an air-traffic controller. For months, Republicans inside and out of the campaign have said the structure is problematic. Rhoades, for instance, is as disciplined and methodical as Stevens is improvisational and disorganized.
Add to those the old Boston hands — Beth Myers, Peter Flaherty and Eric Fehrnstrom; longtime friends and advisers — Mike Leavitt, Bob White and Ron Kaufman; newcomers with juice, especially Ed Gillespie; the family, with his sons and Ann Romney involved in many decisions; and the money folks, headed by a longtime Romney friend and helper, Spencer Zwick.
Campaign officials said most parts of the Romney operation run in the rigid, metrics-driven style of Rhoades, a veteran of the buttoned-up Bush operation of 2004. These parts include finance, voter contact, legal and communications. This stands in contrast to the hazy controls over things in Stevens’s domain, the officials said.
“It is organized the way enterprises are organized: There is a person in charge, and people underneath him with specific responsibilities,” a Romney official said. “There are clear goals and objectives, and constant measurement. Elsewhere in the enterprise, there are all kinds of people with influence and authority but only vague responsibilities.”
Stevens, a 58-year-old son of the South, is easy for conservatives to dislike. His official bio does not exactly scream “Republican ad guy from Mississippi”: “Stuart was educated at Colorado College, Middlebury College, Oxford University and the UCLA Film School, [and] is also a former Fellow of the American Film Institute.”
He is not particularly ideological, and has a big-city, Hollywood aura that grates on movement conservatives. “He’s a smart, capable guy but he sends bad signals” to the right, said a Republican operative who works closely with the campaign. “He has a lot of goofy quotes that cause everybody to shake their heads. … Stuart is one of the most insecure guys in the business. But he has become the top strategic adviser to the nominee, which is a huge accomplishment.”
A Romney official explained: “Mitt is a sticker — he stays with you. He had a reputation at Bain for sticking with people. They made a bad investment, he hung with them. … None of this is going to be fixed. This is the organization, and this is who Mitt is betting on to win. There aren’t going to be further changes.”
A person who recently was alone with Romney added: “Big changes would destabilize the thing.”
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Every profile of Stevens includes the descriptor “eclectic,” which seems fair, given he has skied to the North Pole, chronicled his use of steroids to compete in an extreme race, written novels and a campaign memoir, advised clients in Albania and Congo and consulted on Hollywood projects, including the political film “The Ides of March.”
Stevens has a free-flowing way about his life and is excited by ideas he deems wonderful or weird. He enjoys a love-hate relationship with the media — firing off emails with his candid and often illuminating take on the political spat of the moment, while also stoking the media-is-so-damned-biased flames inside the campaign and among conservatives.
Inside the Romney campaign, Stevens has preached a gospel of caution and consistency: Keep the candidate tightly focused on a bad economy and a worse president. In an interview last year with Robert Draper for The New York Times Magazine, Stevens explained his theory of the case this way: Philadelphia Eagles quarterback “Michael Vick’s not a real good pocket guy … So don’t tell him he can’t roll out. Try to make him the best rollout guy that’s ever played.”
A growing number of conservatives are blaming Stevens for advocating a campaign of caution, one that puts all the emphasis not on how good Romney could be but how bad Obama is. “Credit for this fog goes to that inner circle of Romney advisers who never liked the Ryan pick and have reasserted their will over a candidate who is naturally cautious,” conservative columnist Kimberley Strassel wrote in Friday’s Wall Street Journal. “In the la-la land where adviser Stuart Stevens presides, Mr. Romney wins by never saying a single thing, ever, that might rock a single boat, ever.”’
Stevens was a big, early advocate of a bland vice presidential candidate, privately talking up former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and pushing the idea of an outsider, anti-Beltway ticket. But Stevens is hardly to blame for what many conservatives consider a campaign that is specifics-free and lame. That blame goes straight to the man running his own campaign: Romney himself, according to a number of people in and out of the campaign.
Some Romney loyalists think Stevens never fully appreciated what a good and unique candidate they had in Romney, and pleaded early on to showcase what they saw as a generous, wise and gifted leader. Still, for reasons not fully understood by those around Romney, the candidate not only went with Stevens but gave him tremendous authority.
There are no signs his authority is getting curtailed: Sources inside the campaign said he just prevailed in an internal battle over the next rounds of ads, customized for each swing state.
“Politics is like sports,” Stevens said. “A lot of people have ideas, and there’s no right or wrong. You just have to chart a course, and stay on that course.”