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A premortem obituary for Romney is premature

September 16, 2012, at 10:03 PM
Campaign adviser Stuart Stevens stands with Mitt Romney during a sound check ahead of the Republican National Convention in August.

Campaign adviser Stuart Stevens stands with Mitt Romney during a sound check ahead of the Republican National Convention in August. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Is Mitt Romney's campaign really in crisis? Or is it operating just as a campaign in the throes of a quest to seat the leader of the free world should? I tend to believe the latter just because campaigns are incredibly intense and complex. Politico, however, says the opposite is true. It has published a well-reported and full-of-good-gossip magazine-length article on the campaign just in time for the Monday news cycle. The log line of the article is that consultants have hijacked the campaign, and that that reflects poorly on the candidate. Its prime example is an exquisitely detailed chronology of how Romney botched his convention speech.

That a piece like this was coming is predictable. Campaigns that appear in trouble tend to give birth to them at just about the same time every cycle. And the Republican field is fertile with consultants who don't like Romney, who think that Romney's consultants, primarily Stuart Stevens, are too cosmopolitan for the sensibilities of the Republican Party, and who like to see their observations appear in print. On Twitter, Democrats are joking about the exercise in their party of bringing in Clinton hands to save their last two losing campaigns — those of John Kerry and Al Gore. 

The Politico article is awesome. But logically, it does not quite prove that the campaign is in chaos. It just proves that Romney is running a campaign. These things are very very hard, and "good" campaigns tend to be judged as such only in retrospect. Presidential campaigns are unique, temporary constructs that defy easy comparison to anything. 

It is very easy to imagine how a more sober, restrained Clint Eastwood would have knocked one out of the park, thus turning Stevens into a genius. More to the point: Speechwriting is always chaotic and messy, and smart candidates tend to write as much of their major speeches by themselves as possible. Romney did not say anything about Afghanistan, and that was a mistake. But it was a small mistake, one that most people probably find forgivable compared to his response to a new real-world crisis. Conventional wisdom, including my own, holds that Romney's response to the unrest in Egypt and Libya was a bad error in judgment. But if — and it's a big if — enough Americans become uncomfortable with President Obama's foreign policy leadership, drawing that clear contrast might have been the right thing to do. 

The truth is that President Obama's recent polling success has more to do with President Obama, and Mitt Romney's problems have to do with decisions that Mitt Romney made much earlier this year. If Mitt Romney loses, he will lose because he is Mitt Romney, and not because Stuart Stevens is a disorganized, charming, inconsistent half-brilliant half-crazy consultant.

I also don't like the easy criticism that Romney should run a campaign well because he ran businesses well. For one thing, there isn't enough history to draw on to test that assumption. For another, a campaign is a business in a legal sense but it is categorically, fundamentally different than a business. Barack Obama, with no business experience, seems to have done a good job running his. But that of course is a judgment I've made in retrospect.

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