Politics & Policy

Loyalty to the Truth

There’s a duty to speak out about the failures of the Romney campaign.

Even before my new book, A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign: An Insider’s Account, went on sale and could be read, it was suggested to me by former colleagues in a series of e-mails, calls, and statements in the press that I would regret airing “dirty laundry” in public.

One top aide warned that I would become “permanently radioactive” and would never work in this town again. Others called me disreputable and disloyal — and those are among the kinder words directed my way. And then the smearing began, with Romney’s deputy campaign manager going so far as to state to Time that I was lying about being a “senior adviser” to the campaign, an attempt to discredit me readily disproven by the campaign’s own official documents.

Is this fierce reaction warranted? Am I wrong to speak up? Both questions raise interesting issues.

The ferocity, I believe, comes from fear. Throughout the campaign, the Romney organization was relatively successful in keeping its secrets to itself. Although the problems of the campaign were visible to the world, a code of silence prevailed, and continues to prevail, in its ranks. It exists for reasons of self-protection, to evade responsibility for a loss that was avoidable. Those warning me off publishing have not even read my book, but their anxiety about what I might say is a measure of how much they have to hide.

My book exposes incompetence, yes. Too often, incompetence is blithely excused in politics. “That’s how campaigns always are,” the experts assure us. For one, if the Republican party hopes to win, that lackadaisical attitude needs to change. Exposing incompetence is a start.

But my book also explores a more fundamental dysfunction of the Romney campaign: a misunderstanding of the very nature of democratic politics itself.

Romney’s top strategists saw the campaign not as a battle for the hearts and minds of Americans, but as a massive marketing and advertising challenge. On November 6, 2012, consumers would be asked to choose between two products. The key task was creating a start-up company called Romney for President, Inc., that, using every available marketing technique, would do what was necessary to ensure that the Romney brand was better known, better liked, and a better seller. The ad men running the campaign thus believed that politics consisted not of leadership by a candidate speaking difficult truths to the American people, but of carefully matching Mitt Romney’s positions to the preferences of voters as they were revealed in polls.

Scripting Romney from morning to night with words favored by focus groups, the strategists running the campaign transformed a man noted for geniality and earnestness into a “severe conservative” who radiated insincerity. Along the way, they created a candidate who, despite his firm convictions on many matters, appeared to the public to have no convictions. Unfortunately, all too often, Mitt Romney willingly helped them along.

Both as a candidate and as a president, George W. Bush had his share of defects. But one of the reasons he twice won presidential elections is that he was exactly who he said he was. Voters could tell, and they liked that. Both as a man and as a governor, Mitt Romney had his share of virtues, and no doubt they would have been on display had he become president. But one of the reasons he lost twice is that he was often not who he said he was. Voters could tell that, too — the artificiality of his focus-group-chosen language was often striking — and they didn’t like it at all.

There is a curious notion of loyalty at work among those attacking me. Mitt Romney’s career in politics is over: He would be the first to admit that he has no further political ambitions. To me, the duty of those who worked in the Romney campaign is to understand our mistakes, so that the Republican party will not repeat them in 2016. I would hope that Mitt Romney, a man of unswerving devotion to our country, would agree.

My book, written in the spirit of honest inquiry, is meant as a corrective aimed at sparking an overdue debate about the fundamentals of American politics.

After the hand-wringing of Republicans across the spectrum, the Republican National Committee’s own flawed attempts at explaining the failure, media reports on the imminent death of the GOP, and attempts to redefine conservatism out of existence, I realized that the party cannot move in the right direction unless it understands what went wrong.

If, in the process of explaining what went wrong, I am labeled “disloyal” by the guild of political hacks who want to keep working in future campaigns without any accountability for their failures, so be it. As the father of three girls who trembles when he contemplates the future of our country, I believe that staying silent is itself a moral failure.

— Gabriel Schoenfeld worked on the Mitt Romney for President campaign for nearly two years, first as a consultant, and then as a senior adviser. His new e-book, A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign: An Insider’s Account (Penguin), goes on sale on May 14.


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