President Obama is beginning his second term today, and while Democrats are celebrating, there are some Republicans and conservatives who are viewing the festivities with more than the usual regret. Until just after the November election, they were among the 300 Washington-based members of Mitt Romney’s transition team, known internally as the “Readiness Project.”
No, hiring such a large staff to prepare plans for a Romney presidency didn’t represent an egotistical measuring of the drapes by the candidate. It was mandated by a new federal law, the Presidential Transition Act, which a Democratic Congress passed in 2010 to ensure that any newly elected president would be able to use the 77 days between election and inauguration to ensure he’d hit the ground running and have a smooth transition of power.
Michael Leavitt, the former Utah governor and Health and Human Services secretary, headed the Romney transition team. Shortly after the election, he told Time magazine, “Doing things on Day One takes activity on Day minus-90.” He was wistful about the Romney administration that might have been: “We built a great ship, but it just didn’t sail.” In part because the team’s bills were picked up by the federal government (to the final tune of $8.9 million), we can learn a fair bit about what the Romney people were up to, despite the confidentiality agreements all team members had to sign.
The “ship” was indeed impressive. The General Services Administration lent the Romney team three floors of a government office building at the corner of Third Street and C Street SW in Washington. The first staffers moved in at the beginning of September and were issued desks, government e-mails and phone numbers, security clearances, and access badges. Workers were assigned to one of more than 30 federal departments and agencies, each of which had its own office space.
“It was impressively organized, and I’ve worked in three administrations,” one member of the transition team tells me. Each team, he says, had to identify the twelve most important people in a department or agency, prepare a list of candidates for the most important jobs, link Romney’s campaign promises to specific actions to take early in the administration, and come up with five recommendations for quick action in each office.
Everyone was on a strict timetable, with “red,” “yellow,” and “green” deadlines for the delivery of policy papers and task-force reports. All were due in final form on Tuesday, November 7 — Election Day. Everyone was ready for the next step, in the event Romney won. “We had parachute teams selected that would have landed to debrief the bureaucrats everywhere right after the election,” the transition staffer tells me.
As team leader, Leavitt enjoyed complete authority to design an administration in waiting. He met with Romney himself every Monday, wherever he was campaigning, to update him on the team’s progress. Leavitt had a four-phase plan: The “readiness phase” lasted until the GOP convention in August; the “planning phase” went up to the election and frequently required transition-team staffers to coordinate with members of Congress on how to get things done. The two phases that were aborted for obvious reasons were the “transition phase” and the “hand-off phase” — these would have culminated in a “200-day plan” that encapsulated everything Romney wanted to accomplish early in his term.
By any measure, the transition team was organizationally impressive, but Republicans and conservatives have a deeper concern about what the transition staffers were up to: What kind of administration were they preparing?
The evidence on this is both mixed and murky. One transition-team member tells me he was thrilled by the recommendations for his agency that were given a “green” light. “The people I worked with knew the importance of de-funding the Left. Sometimes when it looked like the Senate was going Republican, I felt we were going to get the third Reagan term we never got with Bush Senior — at least in my area.”
Another key transition-team member gave Politico a somewhat different impression. Romney wasn’t planning “an ideological crusade,” he said. “He wants to come across as a problem solver, primarily on the economic side.” Everything that was planned appeared to revolve around pragmatic, rather than ideological, goals: “bringing down barriers to economic growth and providing certainty to businesses.”
As for personnel, again the picture was mixed. Defense hawks would have been cheered by the fact that Mike Chertoff, former Bush Department of Homeland Security secretary, was a key player in the transition team and a leading candidate to become attorney general. Ditto with former Missouri senator Jim Talent, currently a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, who was one of three co-chairs of the Romney transition team for the Pentagon and a top candidate to become defense secretary. On the other hand, an overall coordinator of the national-security transition was former World Bank president Robert Zoellick, who has often drawn the ire of conservatives.
On the domestic side, conservatives would have been generally pleased with the two domestic-policy coordinators on the transition team: Glenn Hubbard, a former chairman of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, and Al Hubbard, director of Bush’s National Economic Council. John Taylor, a Stanford University professor and a noted free-market scholar, was a top candidate to replace the interventionist Ben Bernanke as head of the Federal Reserve. But one transition-team member makes it clear that Romney’s economic conservatism had clear limits: “You wouldn’t have seen wild-eyed supply-siders or privatization advocates being appointed. A Romney administration would have seen old hands and graybeards in charge.”
We will never know exactly what course a Romney administration would have steered or exactly whom it would have placed in every staff and cabinet position. One thing is clear: The Romney transition team was much better run and more focused than the often chaotic Romney campaign, with its clash of consultant egos and its happy talk about internal polls that featured questionable turnout models, not to mention the epic failure of ORCA, the campaign’s computer-driven Election Day get-out-the-vote effort.
Many people have already said this: Mitt Romney may be the presidential candidate who ran the least effective of campaigns but who would have made the best-organized chief executive in history. Different roles require starkly different skill sets.
The Romney transition team closed up shop just as quietly and professionally as it opened for business. Mike Leavitt, the transition-team leader, is proud that they cleared out of their offices within three days. “We were efficient,” he told Time. Indeed — but, sadly, not winners.
— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for NRO.