Bad days on the Romney campaign

Most campaign staffers for Mitt Romney have maintained a vow of silence, reluctant to point fingers at their former coworkers or the candidate for whom they worked tireless days and nights.

Outsiders have leveled plenty of criticism at the way Romney’s campaign was run, but the former presidential candidate deserves credit for hiring a disciplined team that, six months later, has largely avoided any public airing of grievances. And that’s what makes Gabriel Schoenfeld’s new e-book, A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign: An Insider’s Account, such an enticing prospect. 

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A former official who served as a staff writer out of the campaign’s Boston office, Schoenfeld vows to “subordinate discretion and friendship” to provide insight into the campaign’s central failings. The 66-page account bills itself as the first peek behind the curtain, a look at the decisions and strategies that doomed the Romney campaign.

Schoenfeld argues that this betrayal is permissible because “the stakes are high” for understanding what went wrong: Republicans must address the Achilles’ heel of the Romney campaign if they hope to compete in the 2016 presidential race.

It’s an enticing sell, even if the book came from a policy adviser who admits he was never a central player in the Romney campaign’s brain trust. 

The book’s contents are made even more tantalizing by the preemptive criticism from Romney loyalists. In interviews with The Boston Globe ahead of the e-book’s publication, Romney allies characterize Schoenfeld as disgruntled and marginalized within the Boston headquarters.

“I think he just has stuff he wants to get off his chest. Sigh. Welcome to e-books,” one said in an email to the newspaper.

Those cautions by loyal Romney advisers, unfortunately, are validated by the weaknesses in Schoenfeld’s tome.

The driving thesis of the book is that Romney and his top advisers actively decided to de-emphasize foreign policy in the campaign, preferring to focus their attention squarely on the economy. 

Among the missteps Schoenfeld lays out: Romney’s bungled attack on the Obama administration’s handling of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng; the candidate’s statement that Russia was the country’s number one geopolitical foe; and the hiring of Richard Grenell, who was forced out of his role as foreign policy spokesman after tweets critical of Newt Gingrich and his wife, Callista, were publicized in the media.

More notably, Romney’s major foreign trip was undermined by a series of missteps in London, including breaching protocol by acknowledging the existence of MI6 and his suggestion the city might not be prepared to host the Olympic Games. 

Later, the Romney campaign’s desire to pounce on the violence at the American facility in Benghazi, Libya — despite a self-imposed moratorium on political attacks during the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks — led to one of the campaign’s most visible political disasters. A hasty statement issued late in the night was factually incorrect, and it appeared nakedly political and opportunistic. It would provide President Obama’s campaign with cover from what otherwise might have been a severely damaging story.

Strung together, the series of missteps do appear damning. But a focus on a two-year period of any presidential campaign could likely catalog a similar number of tactical errors. And there’s little to suggest voters actually cared about foreign policy.

According to exit polls, 6 in 10 said the economy was the most important issue. Healthcare was a distant second at 17 percent, tied with the deficit. Only 4 percent of voters said foreign policy was the most important issue.

Schoenfeld might argue that those numbers would be less dramatic if Romney were more willing to engage Obama on foreign policy issues. But even then, his diagnosis of where the Romney campaign erred focused more on personal slights or unique errors than broader themes.

In the book’s most revealing moments, Schoenfeld writes that Romney routinely ignored or did not seek out the advice of foreign policy experts. Romney’s initial criticism of the administration’s handling of Benghazi and Guangcheng hadn’t been vetted by foreign policy experts. The candidate wasn’t accompanied by enough staff on his trip to London, and senior campaign officials seemed more concerned by how to present their ideas than the actual policy details.

He also suggests that Lanchee Chen, Romney’s top policy adviser, was more concerned with keeping a loyal team that would follow his instructions and not personally outshine him than soliciting outside advice from the party’s top foreign policy thinkers. 

Schoenfeld’s dislike for Chen is palatable; he mocks the Harvard Ph.D.’s insistence on being referred to as “doctor.”

More generally, Schoenfeld contends that it was an overreliance on data and polling that led the campaign to ignore the opportunities offered by more aggressively engaging on foreign policy. He suggests that Romney “attempted to please, rather than lead, the American people.”

But would the best foreign policy advisers closed the gap with female voters worried about social issues? Would a candidate less concerned with poll numbers have won over some of the 7 in 10 Hispanic voters that broke for the president? If Lanchee Chen had been less vain, could Romney have divorced himself from the legacy of the Bush administration? If Benghazi had been so politically potent, why is Obama’s current approval rating above 50 percent despite daily attacks from the GOP?

Throughout the book, Schoenfeld chides his former colleagues for rushing to score political points without first fully assessing a foreign policy crisis. His text suffers from the same fault, looking to build a narrative and settle scores rather than providing new, actionable insight into where the Romney campaign went wrong.