Gabriel Schoenfeld: A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign

Gabriel Schoenfeld was a senior editor of Commentary, where he published such brilliant essays as “Was Kissinger Right?” and “Could September 11 have been averted?” These essays are models of close reading, scrupulous analysis and exacting judgment.

Since leaving Commentary Gabe has written books in the same mold. Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media and the Rule of Law, published in 2010, inspired by events in 2005, is nevertheless as timely as today’s headlines and a book of permanent value.

Gabe’s new e-book, A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign: An Insider’s Account, has just been published by Penguin. Not surprisingly, if you are familiar with Gabe’s work, the book makes an important contribution to our understanding. Gabe has graciously responded to our invitation to explain what he has on offer in his new book for Power Line readers. He writes:

What does Mitt Romney’s defeat last November mean for the future of the Republican party? One’s answer hinges, in large measure, on one’s understanding of what caused Romney to lose to a remarkably vulnerable incumbent. Having worked on the campaign as a speechwriter for nearly two years, my own view is that given the closeness of the election, our mistakes—those made by Romney himself and those made by the campaign—were highly consequential. Romney, a man of great integrity, has openly called for a better understanding of those mistakes so that future candidates can learn from them.

In my e-book, A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign, I try to account for a long chain of mistakes that led the campaign to misfire in the middle of the national-security crisis that erupted in Cairo and Benghazi on September 11, 2012. As I attempt to show, the errors made in that episode did not happen in a vacuum. Rather, they were one of the consequences of a vision of American politics embraced by Romney and his top strategists. The problem before them in the quest for the presidency was, at its core, conceived of as an advertising and marketing challenge.

That vision of politics failed and the consultants Romney hired—if not political consultants as a class—are now fighting for their livelihoods, if not their lives. “Should We Shoot All the Consultants Now?” was the title of a panel discussion held at a recent conservative conclave. As that blunt question makes plain, at least some Republicans comprehend that turning politics into nothing more than a subsidiary of the advertising and marketing business, as the Romney campaign attempted to do, is the path to repeated failure.

But the trouble is that the consultants are deeply entrenched in the Republican Party. And they are using their entrenched position to fight to retain their grip on resources and power. Evidence of their struggle can be found in the Republican National Committee’s Growth & Opportunity Project, the official Republican autopsy on the Romney campaign.

The RNC postmortem does not beat around the bush. Politics, in its vision, is the art of best matching a candidate’s positions to the preferences of voters as those preferences are revealed in polls and focus groups. To this end, great weight is placed in the report on the urgency of gathering ever more information about the electorate. In particular, explains the report, “we need to know what language is most likely to motivate a donor or a voter and convert them into a vote for Republican candidates.” To discover exactly the right collection of words—the magical incantation— for getting votes, the “use of data and measurement is critical.”

With the right kind of data, continues the report, politics can be made more scientific. And a more scientific approach will yield a better success rate. Republican campaigns therefore need to be “grounded in rigorous testing and trial-and-error processes to ensure our strategies, messages, and tactics are effective in persuading voters.” As the report candidly acknowledges, this is not a task to be conducted by a living, breathing political leader; rather it is one best left to machines: “We cannot leave anything to intuition, gut instincts, or ‘traditional’ ways of doing things.” Instead, the party needs to rely on “modern technology,” which “gives us the ability to run pretests on just about everything.”

To implement this technocratic vision, the RNC recommends that the Republican Party become a “data-driven” party. To accomplish this, a high priority must be that “voter and volunteer data, fundraising and donor data, digital data, consumer data, and media habits” all be integrated, analyzed, and made accessible to candidates by means of “application programming interfaces (APIs).” These APIs in turn can be used to “facilitate more user interfaces (UIs) to address all manner of campaign function and level of sophistication including file selections, modeling and analysis, and the feedback of touch-point and response to marketing initiatives.”

Such technobabble continues for pages of the report.

How did the RNC come to embrace this particular approach to recapturing the future? Surprise of surprises: the report explains that the RNC took a poll of “GOP professionals,” i.e., Republican political consultants, the very class of people who make a handsome living providing these data and messaging services. These professionals recommended not only gathering ever more reams of data, but also that the Republican Party create a home for it all in a “data analytics institute” to be paid for by “funders,” i.e., Republicans with thick wallets.

This new research body would “incorporate pollsters, data managers, and messaging professionals” under its umbrella. In other words, the RNC is recommending full, permanent, and (presumably) lucrative employment for the professionals themselves. Republican candidates may come and go, but the Republican consultants at the “data analytic institute” will always have a job. And quite a responsible job. Those working in the institute will perform the crucial function of transforming data about what the electorate wants to hear into what it subsequently will hear from the mouths of candidates.

But could the story of Mitt Romney’s data-driven campaign and the sense of artificiality it generated in perceptions of the candidate make it any plainer that better data and better technology are not the answer? Nor is jettisoning “intuition, gut instincts, or ‘traditional’ ways of doing things.”

No one would quarrel with the notion that there is an important place for number-crunching and modern technology in American political life. In a mass society like ours, campaigns need to be able to use the tools of science to gauge their progress, to identify likely voters, to communicate along all channels that the Internet revolution has opened up, and in many of the other tasks that are essential components of political life. But in its analysis and recommendations, the Growth & Opportunity Project goes far beyond the basic proposition that the tools of technology should be harnessed to advance a set of political ideas or a cause. Indeed, the RNC turns that proposition on its head. Instead of harnessing technology to advance a cause, the cause is harnessed to the technology because the technology is said to have the ability to reveal, at any given instant, exactly what voters really want to hear and exactly what candidates need to say to gain their votes.

The RNC’s quest for better data so that it can have better “messaging” is not a mechanism for leadership. It is a mechanism for following the crowd. There is a notable irony here; the professionals are proposing not only the degradation of deliberative democracy, but also a mechanism for losing race after race. Voters do not need to “run a pretest” to identify and be repelled by a candidate who is painstakingly cleaving to the incantations derived from focus groups and polls.

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 in a leader. 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 did not like it at all. A good marketing team would have understood that packaging Mitt Romney as something he was not was a mistake. Indeed, a really good marketing team would not have packaged him at all. They would have let this impressive man be himself.

More pertinently, this impressive man could himself have chosen to remain himself. David Frum maintains that Romney, one of the Republican Party’s “most articulate and intelligent standard-bearers in decades,” was “forced” by ideological conservatives “to jettison his own best self and best judgment.” There is of course something to this argument. Conservatives in key states, the argument continues, have a lock on the primary process. If Romney had not concealed his true moderate self and tacked to the right, he would have had little chance of capturing the Republican nomination. We cannot rerun history backward to see if such an analysis is correct. But a case can be made that voters of every stripe, including conservatives, would have had far more respect for Romney if he had resisted the conservative Siren calls to sail in their direction and, instead of posing as a “severe conservative,” had stood fast for what he believed.

Our country’s greatest presidents, from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, did not need to bend to the whims of the electorate. By dint of their principled statesmanship, they bent the electorate to their will. They educated it. They persuaded it. They brought it along. They certainly did not need application programming interfaces to get elected and to accomplish what they accomplished. Nor did Abraham Lincoln need to hire a “messaging professional” to write the Gettysburg Address.

In the wake of defeat, the Republican Party needs to strike out in a radically new direction—actually, not a radically new direction, but a radically old one–a conservative one, one in which “intuition, gut instincts, [and] ‘traditional’ ways of doing things,” the very things that the GOP professionals would mindlessly toss away, are again properly valued. Recapturing the White House will be difficult, but all the same it is simpler than the professionals would have us believe. We don’t need the APIs and other gizmos and the data analytic institute that they are recommending. What we need is a candidate who understands the country and its problems, is knowledgeable about its history, has a vision for its future, doesn’t buy the snake oil that the consultants are peddling, and unabashedly says what he believes. Mitt Romney could have been that candidate. Sadly, this man of so much promise and ability chose a different path.