Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mitt Romney

Can Mitt Be Our Favorite Ex-Non-President?

There is no better job in the world than being an ex-president. We build museums and libraries to honor them like ancient Egyptians built pyramids for dead pharaohs and they live on the government tab for the rest of their lives, free to play golf as well as doing good works that burnish their reputations and make occasional side trips into partisan activity to help friends and allies.

There is no worse job than being a failed presidential candidate. While your opponent gets to hear “Hail to the Chief” every time he walks into a room, November’s loser must slink off into obscurity, generally despised even more by members of his own party (who will never forgive their candidate for losing) than even their opponents.

But judging from the latest reports about Mitt Romney’s plans, he sounds as if he’s trying to combine the two jobs. As the Wall Street Journal writes today, Romney’s plans to “rejoin the national dialogue” seem to be based on the idea that he still has the potential to do his country and his party some good. While Republicans desperately need to turn the page from his failed 2012 campaign and put new faces in front of the voters, Romney may be on to something.

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There is no better job in the world than being an ex-president. We build museums and libraries to honor them like ancient Egyptians built pyramids for dead pharaohs and they live on the government tab for the rest of their lives, free to play golf as well as doing good works that burnish their reputations and make occasional side trips into partisan activity to help friends and allies.

There is no worse job than being a failed presidential candidate. While your opponent gets to hear “Hail to the Chief” every time he walks into a room, November’s loser must slink off into obscurity, generally despised even more by members of his own party (who will never forgive their candidate for losing) than even their opponents.

But judging from the latest reports about Mitt Romney’s plans, he sounds as if he’s trying to combine the two jobs. As the Wall Street Journal writes today, Romney’s plans to “rejoin the national dialogue” seem to be based on the idea that he still has the potential to do his country and his party some good. While Republicans desperately need to turn the page from his failed 2012 campaign and put new faces in front of the voters, Romney may be on to something.

According to the Journal:

As a first step, the former Republican presidential nominee plans to welcome 200 friends and supporters to a three-day summit next week that he will host at a Utah mountain resort. He is considering writing a book and a series of opinion pieces, and has plans to campaign for 2014 candidates.

The “Experts and Enthusiasts” summit is apparently more than just a GOP gabfest. It will center on philanthropic and business issues as well as political ones and even includes an appearance from former top Democratic strategist David Axelrod. Which makes it sound like something that we’d expect to be run by a popular ex-president like Bill Clinton, who has helped build his brand by combining advocacy with charity work in his foundation.

The point is Romney doesn’t want to go away and hide, though that is precisely what a lot of conservative Republicans may want him to do. In his characteristic technocratic can-do style, he still wants to help brainstorm solutions to the country’s problems while also keeping his hand in politics and doing good works.

There are good reasons for him to worry about becoming too prominent, and according to the Journal he’s sensitive to those concerns. Romney is a favorite whipping boy of the left and liberal media outlets and there’s little doubt they will take every opportunity to pour on the abuse. The deep bench of GOP presidential prospects for 2016 also provides a variety of views that makes it unnecessary for Romney to become too visible. The party needs to avoid doing anything that makes it seem as if a rejected politician like Romney is its de facto leader. His image as a plutocrat that was reinforced by a year’s worth of Democratic attack ads, gaffes as well as his views on issues like immigration are not the sort of things that can help Republicans win in 2014 or 2016.

But there is plenty of room for Romney to play a role as an elder statesman who is no longer out for his own personal advancement while still seeking to help America. That’s the sort of perch usually reserved for ex-presidents, not mere failed politicians who either return to the political fray in some other guise (like John Kerry or John McCain) or just fade from view other than the occasional television commercial like Bob Dole.

Republicans need a completely different style of candidate in 2016. One more in touch with common concerns—something the remote Romney never could master—as well as someone who isn’t filthy rich would be a good place to start. But there is a place in our national discussion for a figure that can be both a political voice and a wealthy do-gooder with the stature to bring out attention to issues when he deems it vital to do so.

Mitt Romney might have made a good president, but he was a terrible politician, so we’ll never get to know just how well he might have done if he had been given the chance to sit in the Oval Office. But he can skip the four- or eight-year waiting period and jump right into the business of being an ex-president, using his prestige, wealth and ability to speak out to do as much to aid needy causes or highlight issues as the two Bushes or Clinton can while also avoiding the vitriol and ill will toward Israel that has ruined Jimmy Carter’s ex-presidency.

If Mitt sticks with it, he may turn out to be our best and most beloved ex-non-president in history. While it’s not as good as being president, it’s nothing to snicker at either.

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Axelrod’s Disciples

Humorlessness and self-seriousness can be a difficult combination of traits for a national politician to overcome. But Barack Obama managed to do so in part because when he stayed on script he was eloquent and measured. Those who work for him, however, seem to possess all of his thin-skinned defensiveness with none of the charm.

So it was no surprise that eventually those employees would become ex-employees and saturate the Twittersphere with what Dylan Byers today calls “their frat-house banter” of social media aggression. Byers writes that the angry, score-settling aides shine a light on the mindset of those still toiling away in the West Wing:

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Humorlessness and self-seriousness can be a difficult combination of traits for a national politician to overcome. But Barack Obama managed to do so in part because when he stayed on script he was eloquent and measured. Those who work for him, however, seem to possess all of his thin-skinned defensiveness with none of the charm.

So it was no surprise that eventually those employees would become ex-employees and saturate the Twittersphere with what Dylan Byers today calls “their frat-house banter” of social media aggression. Byers writes that the angry, score-settling aides shine a light on the mindset of those still toiling away in the West Wing:

“Twitter offers a window into the internal frustrations of an administration and the arguments people make on the inside. So it’s not surprising that people coming out of this White House are skeptical of Washington, Congress and the media,” Lovett, a former White House speechwriter, told POLITICO. “If there was Twitter when John Adams was president, ex-John Adams staffers would probably have let loose on Thomas Jefferson.”

But of course, there wasn’t Twitter when John Adams was president, nor was Twitter an influential medium during the tenure of President George W. Bush. President Obama’s aides are the first to leave a White House in the age of social media. Where former administration staffers took their newfound freedom to cable news or the pages of an inside-the-White-House tell-all, Obama staffers are voicing their grievances — and building their post-White House brands — through social media.

It’s interesting that Lovett admits that the media would be a natural target. The political press, after all, consider themselves a kind of informational Secret Service for this president. But I suppose if most of the coverage you get is positive, that one Woodward op-ed and the occasional Washington Post editorial that goes the other way stand out that much more. Obama is also famously obsessed with his own press clips.

Social media is relatively young and a minefield, and you tend to want to have a bit of compassion for the occasional slip-up. But much of this group’s activity is by design, not mistake. And it predates their free agency. As I wrote back in January of 2012, even the New York Times was put-off by David Axelrod’s Twitter obsession with his counterparts on the Romney campaign. The attention was unrequited, so Axelrod beefed up his taunting until the Times had to step in. “Mr. Axelrod clearly does a lot of personal thinking about Mr. Romney,” the Times wrote, highlighting several examples of when Axelrod surely should have known better than to be on his phone taunting Republicans. Sample tweet: “At Bulls game with my daughter, Lauren, thinking about how turnovers late in game can kill you. Must be thinking same over at Romney HQ!”

It’s doubtful they were thinking the same thing over at Romney headquarters, and it’s doubly doubtful they were thinking at all about Axelrod while with their children at a basketball game. But silly season gets its name for a reason. There were also times Axelrod drifted into offensive waters, for example sending anti-Mormon tweets while working for a campaign that branded Romney in its ads “not one of us.”

Axelrod led by example and set a certain tone for the entire Obama campaign apparatus. Thus when the younger staffers who followed Axelrod into Twitter battle left the White House, they went looking for a fight anywhere they could get it, as they tell Byers:

“For the first couple weeks there was a feeling of being unleashed,” Favreau told POLITICO. “Tommy and I were at an airport waiting for a flight, and we were both in a Twitter fight with someone. After about an hour, we looked up from ours phones and said, ‘We have to stop.’”

Fights and potshots take up a fair amount of former staffers’ time on Twitter, and though the group has shared targets — Republican intransigence, the media’s obsession with minutiae, conservative Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin — each individual has his favorite areas of combat.

It’s not just opinion writers or reporters; current White House advisor Dan Pfeiffer used his interview with Politico today to complain about the online news aggregator Drudge: “It hurts what we’re trying to do,” Pfeiffer said–which is: control the news cycle.

And that really gets to what is driving the relentless combat. When the Obama campaign put out ads accusing Romney of giving people cancer or of not being “one of us” or of wanting to kill Big Bird, there were two main concerns: first, whether someone else on the campaign was prepared to grab the wheel and steer it out of the gutter (there wasn’t), and second, that the Obama campaign might win the election and believe that their strategy was vindicated. Clearly, both concerns were right on the mark.

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The MSM Is Disappointed in Itself

In May 2012, the Washington Post published the findings of its deep dive into Mitt Romney’s past. The paper had been working on a big investigative journalism piece that would finally reveal what no one else could uncover about Romney. Utilizing the resources that only major dailies can marshal, and proudly speaking truth to power and defending the people’s right to know, the Post threw the 2012 election into pure chaos, upending everything voters thought they knew about the candidates.

Mitt Romney, as a youngster, once cut someone else’s hair.

It didn’t sound like such a bombshell at first blush, but then the Post–in a bid to make this as embarrassing as possible for the family of the victim–openly speculated about his sexuality. The family of the victim (who has since passed away), thoroughly humiliated by the Post’s behavior, denied the Post’s story and asked the newspaper to please stop spreading stories about their family “to further a political agenda.” Indeed, it was one of the low moments of the 2012 cycle. So why do I bring this up now? Because that same Washington Post reports today on a new Pew study showing that the media is increasingly echoing, instead of investigating, politicians. The Post, unsurprisingly, isn’t happy about this:

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In May 2012, the Washington Post published the findings of its deep dive into Mitt Romney’s past. The paper had been working on a big investigative journalism piece that would finally reveal what no one else could uncover about Romney. Utilizing the resources that only major dailies can marshal, and proudly speaking truth to power and defending the people’s right to know, the Post threw the 2012 election into pure chaos, upending everything voters thought they knew about the candidates.

Mitt Romney, as a youngster, once cut someone else’s hair.

It didn’t sound like such a bombshell at first blush, but then the Post–in a bid to make this as embarrassing as possible for the family of the victim–openly speculated about his sexuality. The family of the victim (who has since passed away), thoroughly humiliated by the Post’s behavior, denied the Post’s story and asked the newspaper to please stop spreading stories about their family “to further a political agenda.” Indeed, it was one of the low moments of the 2012 cycle. So why do I bring this up now? Because that same Washington Post reports today on a new Pew study showing that the media is increasingly echoing, instead of investigating, politicians. The Post, unsurprisingly, isn’t happy about this:

“Campaign reporters were acting primarily as megaphones, rather than investigators, of the assertions put forward by the candidates and other political partisans,” according to the report. “Only about a quarter of statements in the media about the character and records of the presidential candidates originated with journalists in the 2012 race, while twice that many came from political partisans.” …

When news organizations are pushed out of the information pipeline, voters alone are left to sort through messages that are tested in focus groups and opposition attacks tailored with great specificity. And on the heels of a presidential campaign in which one candidate’s pollster said he refused to let the campaign be dictated by fact-checkers, such a strategy is growing easier to execute.

The facts are these: Campaigns and candidates have more power than ever before to frame both their positive narrative and their opponents’ negative one.  And, if the Pew numbers are right, both sides are spending much more time on the negative side of the ledger — at least in 2012.

Think of those numbers the next time you run down the role of the political media.

Yes, you think about that the next time you feel like complaining about front-page stories in papers like the Post. In fact, you’ll probably have that opportunity again soon, because like clockwork the Post identifies the Republican it deems most dangerous to the liberal agenda and fires off a gobsmackingly absurd–and often factually incorrect–story about them. The Post usually follows that story with an article about its previous story, in which it drums up a fake controversy and then drums up fake outrage about it.

The truth is, if the Post is unhappy about the press acting “as megaphones, rather than investigators,” it only has itself to blame. Before Romney was the target, Democrats felt threatened by Texas Governor Rick Perry. So the Post published a story meant to be damning toward Perry’s character, in which it breathlessly reported the existence of a hunting property leased by Perry’s family that once had a rock with a racial epithet painted on it but which no one can find today. Before the Post went after Perry, the paper decided to weigh in on the 2009 Virginia governor’s race by attacking Bob McDonnell’s 20-year-old college thesis and publishing about a story a day on it for the first week or so. McDonnell won the election easily, needless to say. And the Post tried to dig up dirt on Marco Rubio, found nothing, and pretended it found something anyway. The Post story was quickly debunked.

None of this is to suggest that modern newspapers publish only nonsense. They do plenty of good work. And the fading of investigative journalism–a function of tightening budgets and lack of resources, mainly–is to be mourned. But too often investigative journalism as currently practiced discredits just this kind of reporting–especially when election season rolls around.

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Ryan Has Options, But Has He Already Made His Choice?

Paul Ryan’s role in the 2012 presidential election was, from the standpoint of some congressional Republicans, perfect. Because Ryan is the author of budget-cutting legislation that seeks to reform entitlements, especially Medicare, his proposals are controversial. Republicans in Congress may be supportive of such legislation, and indeed voted for it in large numbers, but it opens up an easy line of attack for their opponents. But they also want to rein in debt, support their fellow (popular) conservative reformer, and stay in the good graces of the party’s grassroots–as Newt Gingrich found out when he criticized Ryan’s plan in harsh terms and earned the ire of conservative voters when he ran for the GOP nomination.

Gingrich backtracked, but he was in an unenviable position: he wanted to appeal to both the center and the base; he didn’t want to appear timid by backtracking and deferring to Ryan, who wasn’t running. But he also couldn’t embrace a plan he had genuine concerns about, both philosophically and with regard to electoral politics. This is where many in the party found themselves on the issue of trying to win local and national elections–caught between prudence and their reformist instincts. Ryan chose not to run for president, which prevented the party’s candidates from having to spend an entire election season defending that one proposal. And because he was picked up as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee, his own plans were overshadowed by those of Romney–the top of the ticket. Thus, had the GOP ousted President Obama in November, Republicans would have arrived on the cusp of major conservative reform in a relatively quiet way.

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Paul Ryan’s role in the 2012 presidential election was, from the standpoint of some congressional Republicans, perfect. Because Ryan is the author of budget-cutting legislation that seeks to reform entitlements, especially Medicare, his proposals are controversial. Republicans in Congress may be supportive of such legislation, and indeed voted for it in large numbers, but it opens up an easy line of attack for their opponents. But they also want to rein in debt, support their fellow (popular) conservative reformer, and stay in the good graces of the party’s grassroots–as Newt Gingrich found out when he criticized Ryan’s plan in harsh terms and earned the ire of conservative voters when he ran for the GOP nomination.

Gingrich backtracked, but he was in an unenviable position: he wanted to appeal to both the center and the base; he didn’t want to appear timid by backtracking and deferring to Ryan, who wasn’t running. But he also couldn’t embrace a plan he had genuine concerns about, both philosophically and with regard to electoral politics. This is where many in the party found themselves on the issue of trying to win local and national elections–caught between prudence and their reformist instincts. Ryan chose not to run for president, which prevented the party’s candidates from having to spend an entire election season defending that one proposal. And because he was picked up as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee, his own plans were overshadowed by those of Romney–the top of the ticket. Thus, had the GOP ousted President Obama in November, Republicans would have arrived on the cusp of major conservative reform in a relatively quiet way.

But they didn’t win. And that meant the party faced the prospect of a new cycle of political fights over Ryan’s reforms, since he is the House budget leader. But he could also not be easily overlooked, since he returned as the party’s (unsuccessful) vice presidential hopeful. That’s why in today’s Politico story analyzing Paul Ryan’s competing paths to power, this particular segment stands out as possibly the best harbinger of what to expect from the rising conservative star:

Ryan associates say he has been surprised at how central his governing role has been among House Republicans since returning from his failed run for vice president. He was instrumental in cooking up the GOP’s new debt ceiling strategy and will craft a budget plan that sets the direction for the GOP caucus on virtually every consequential issue. With this in mind, he now calculates that naked national ambitions would only dilute his growing power as Speaker John Boehner’s unofficial wing man.

At the same time, Ryan continues to cultivate a national political and financial network that would serve him in any role. A top GOP source said Ryan recently huddled with Spencer Zwick, Mitt Romney’s fundraising guru, who made plain much of the 2012 donor base stands ready to back him if he were to ever warm again to a White House run. Ryan also made a fundraising trip to Texas last month for his Prosperity PAC. He was hosted by top Romney donors who urged him to run, convinced he has been totally vetted and passed the readiness test.

There are three nuggets of information in those two paragraphs, and they basically summarize Ryan’s current predicament. First, major party donors like him and want him to run for president; second, his instinct is not to run, and instead stick to policy; and third, that the GOP House caucus’s embrace of Ryan when he returned from the campaign played a fairly important role in all this.

Ryan understood that although he is young, losing a national race can halt anyone’s career momentum, and it can leave the impression that the losing candidate is an also-ran. Those perceptions are difficult, though far from impossible, to reverse. And Ryan would have one advantage: no one blames him for the election result, since he was not at the top of the ticket. His selection, in fact, energized grassroots conservatives. Nonetheless, as a candidate for the White House in a close election Ryan had one foot out the door of the House chamber. The fact that House Republicans welcomed his return as a congressional leader says a lot about the value House Republicans place in Ryan, and the confidence he instills in them that they can win with his agenda.

Though Ryan is a fine public speaker and a solid debater, he was always more at home writing policy than on the campaign trail. If he wanted to compete for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, he surely could, and he would have something of a head start on his rivals with both the base and party donors. But the lesson of Bob Dole’s run for president in 1996 looms large: it is difficult–Dole found it impossible, actually–to be a congressional leader and presidential candidate at the same time. Ryan may very well be the most influential Republican in the House already. Though he could certainly make a play for being even more, he appears to be relieved to have his old role back, for the time being. The party’s base has reason to be relieved, as well, that Ryan’s colleagues didn’t lose their resolve to fight for real reform in his brief absence.

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Learning from Obama’s Campaign Victory

Immediately following the election, a great deal of attention was paid to the incredibly inept Romney GOTV effort by this blog and many others. The failure of the program Orca was almost too complete, too shocking to be believed and it left many, including myself, wondering what might have been if the Romney campaign had an effective GOTV effort on Election Day. Obama’s margin of victory was such that if there had been a GOTV and organizational effort by the Romney campaign even close to his opponent, there might have been a clear chance at victory in several swing states for the Republican nominee. 

After the election, Romney’s digital campaign staff conducted a post-mortem with leading GOP and conservative strategists and, shockingly, reportedly came out feeling “cheerful” despite their walloping not only at the polls, but also in the digital realm. How could these experts have reached a conclusion so far from reality? Simply, many of these digital consultants have a financial incentive to maintain the status quo. RedState’s Erick Erickson named names shortly after the election and explained how and why a group of strategists linked to the RNC and other conservative groups rake in millions every election season, despite their continued failures. There is one notable exception to that group of consultants and digital strategists: Patrick Ruffini. 

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Immediately following the election, a great deal of attention was paid to the incredibly inept Romney GOTV effort by this blog and many others. The failure of the program Orca was almost too complete, too shocking to be believed and it left many, including myself, wondering what might have been if the Romney campaign had an effective GOTV effort on Election Day. Obama’s margin of victory was such that if there had been a GOTV and organizational effort by the Romney campaign even close to his opponent, there might have been a clear chance at victory in several swing states for the Republican nominee. 

After the election, Romney’s digital campaign staff conducted a post-mortem with leading GOP and conservative strategists and, shockingly, reportedly came out feeling “cheerful” despite their walloping not only at the polls, but also in the digital realm. How could these experts have reached a conclusion so far from reality? Simply, many of these digital consultants have a financial incentive to maintain the status quo. RedState’s Erick Erickson named names shortly after the election and explained how and why a group of strategists linked to the RNC and other conservative groups rake in millions every election season, despite their continued failures. There is one notable exception to that group of consultants and digital strategists: Patrick Ruffini. 

Since the election, while the attention of almost every other conservative strategist and activist was focused on the failure in the Romney campaign, Ruffini has spent a significant amount of time and effort deconstructing the incredibly successful Obama campaign. Ruffini, the founder and owner of the consulting firm EngageDC, sneaked into Obama For America (OFA) strategy sessions, live-tweeting and later collating his findings. He has also pored over information released by OFA about their organizational structure to learn how OFA operated so that a future GOP candidate wouldn’t find themselves so outgunned in future campaigns. In one large report, Going Inside the Cave, Ruffini’s team analyzed the organization, strategy and implementation of OFA’s digital efforts, explaining: 

OFA was, far and away, the most sophisticated political organization on the planet. And Republicans needed to learn from them. So we set about gathering insights, data, and anecdotes from hundreds of news articles, blog posts, interviews, podcasts, and presentations. 

The Cave is what OFA called the windowless room that housed their analytics team. Like digital in 2008, analytics came of age in the 2012 campaign. OFA’s analytics team had 50 staffers. By comparison, the Romney-Ryan campaign had a data team of 4 people.

Veterans of OFA have been surprisingly forthcoming in providing details on how they leveraged the latest in technology and digital strategy to make their campaign as effective and efficient as possible.

In 2016, Republicans can’t afford to fight the battles of 2012. We have to look forward to the future and start preparing now.

Last night Ruffini live-tweeted his analysis of the “OFA Legacy Report,” which he then compiled along with other digital strategists’s anecdotes. Why is Ruffini and his firm spending so much time deconstructing the reelection campaign of a second-term president? While this may be Obama’s last term in office, OFA isn’t going anywhere. Mother Jones reports:

Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign was the most technologically advanced political operation in American history. The campaign, led by Jim Messina, amassed and distilled vast quantities of voter data, built apps and networks to mobilize voters and enlist volunteers, and practically perfected the science of email fundraising. Post-election, Messina and his lieutenants weren’t about to let their data files, email lists, algorithms, and grassroots machine simply gather dust. Instead, they will soon launch Organizing for Action, a standalone advocacy group created to bolster Obama as he pursues his second-term agenda.

The new group will be used to mobilize Obama supporters around the key issues of Obama’s second term in office.

Democratic strategist Joe Trippi explained that the group “dwarfs any part of the Democratic coalition.” The LA Times was the first to report on the new group’s hypocritical tax status, given the Obama campaign’s demonization of “dark money” groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, a 501(c)4: 

The organization will be set up as a 501(c)4 social welfare group, according to top Democrats privy to the discussions. That structure allows it to accept unlimited contributions.

The Obama campaign’s data files — its most valuable assets — may be housed in a separate legal entity that would make them accessible to Democratic candidates and party committees, according to a source familiar with the plans.

If Republicans want to make this inauguration day the last of a Democratic president for quite some time, serious time and money needs to be invested in analyzing Obama’s efforts in order not to replicate them, but to best them. Ruffini’s work is a great first step, but instead of GOP consultants and strategists spending time meeting to pat each other on the back, it’s time finally admit how sweeping defeat was in 2012 in order to catch up enough to give the 2016 GOP nominee a chance at victory.  

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Scott Brown’s Choice

Last season, as the Knicks approached their return to the NBA playoffs, they faced a strange dilemma: If they kept winning, they would improve their playoff seed but draw a far tougher opponent in the first round: the eventual champion Miami Heat. In the end, they drew the Heat and lost in the first round. In sports, you generally cannot choose your opponent.

But every so often, in politics you can. And that is what may be tempting Scott Brown to pass on running in the upcoming Massachusetts Senate election to replace John Kerry in favor of running for Massachusetts governor instead. Massachusetts Democrats, according to the Boston Herald, fear Brown is considering doing what the Knicks could not: picking which opponent he’d rather run against. Joe Battenfeld encourages him to do exactly that:

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Last season, as the Knicks approached their return to the NBA playoffs, they faced a strange dilemma: If they kept winning, they would improve their playoff seed but draw a far tougher opponent in the first round: the eventual champion Miami Heat. In the end, they drew the Heat and lost in the first round. In sports, you generally cannot choose your opponent.

But every so often, in politics you can. And that is what may be tempting Scott Brown to pass on running in the upcoming Massachusetts Senate election to replace John Kerry in favor of running for Massachusetts governor instead. Massachusetts Democrats, according to the Boston Herald, fear Brown is considering doing what the Knicks could not: picking which opponent he’d rather run against. Joe Battenfeld encourages him to do exactly that:

Republicans close to the departing U.S. senator said he’s itching to go back to Washington to replace John Kerry, but Democrats are buzzing more about a potential Brown gubernatorial campaign in 2014. It may be tempting for Brown to run in a special election against a vulnerable Rep. Edward J. Markey, but he should reject the easy play and go for the job that really matters — running the state of Massachusetts….

But if you were Scott Brown, who would you rather run against, Ed Markey and the entire Democratic Party, or state Treasurer Steve Grossman or Attorney General Martha Coakley?

Markey already has the backing of Kerry, and as a congressman has acquired campaign experience and connections across the state. Coakley, meanwhile, was the Democrat Brown defeated in the special election to replace Ted Kennedy.

Additionally, the state is no stranger to Republican governors. Mitt Romney was governor of the state before running for president, and he was preceded by a Republican governor as well, Paul Cellucci, who himself was preceded by a Republican governor, Bill Weld. (Who is reportedly considering running for the Kerry seat as well.) That makes the current Massachusetts governor, Deval Patrick, the state’s first Democratic governor since Michael Dukakis.

Brown would be considered a formidable candidate in either election. But his high-profile promise to be a vote against Obamacare in the special election in 2010 helped contribute to his victory and also helped rally the state’s Republican voters. And that issue is, obviously, off the table. The difficulty of winning a Senate seat in Massachusetts as a Republican was demonstrated by Brown’s loss to liberal class warfare icon Elizabeth Warren in November. Brown entered the race with high approval ratings and a moderate, bipartisan voting record to complement his blue-collar appeal and local roots. He lost anyway to Warren, an Oklahoma-born Harvard Law professor with scant knowledge of local issues and no experience running for office.

Democrats are far from confident they’d beat Brown again, even with Markey. As Slate’s Dave Weigel noted, this is a pessimistic, but not irrational, fear:

They beat Brown this year with a huge turnout, which allowed Elizabeth Warren to run 15 points behind Barack Obama and still win. Brown won 1.17 million votes in the 2010 special election. That rose to 1.45 million in 2012. Martha Coakley won 1.06 million in the special, and Warren won 1.68 million votes in the general. Republicans, somewhat cynically, hope that a special election with lower turnout will mean a proportionately bigger fall-off in Democratic votes. November’s exit polls found that the same electorate that was kicking Brown out gave him a 60 percent favorable rating.

That’s where the trauma comes in. Democrats remember a smooth, likeable Brown running over Martha Coakley, gathering momentum as she stumbled all over the place. The final polls before the 2010 special put Brown’s favorables in the high 50s. In the Senate, where he voted the Democrats’ way on some popular bills (DADT repeal, for example), he only got more popular. In June 2011, Brown led any potential Democratic opponent by nine to 25 points. He led Warren by 15 points.

The Democrats’ “trauma,” as Weigel characterizes it, is quite the opposite for Brown, and it’s hard to imagine he’d rather run against Markey than Coakley. The national Republican Party would almost surely prefer the opposite. They don’t gain much with a moderate Republican governorship, but would love another Senate seat heading into the 2014 midterms. Brown, however, would give his career (and any national ambitions he might have) quite a boost by winning the governor’s seat. And he is only too aware of the temporary nature of Massachusetts voters’ desire to see a Republican represent their state in the Senate.

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How the Right Can Reclaim its Edge on Foreign Policy

Aside from the prospect of automatic cuts in near-term defense spending, the ongoing drama over the so-called fiscal cliff continues to sideline the issue of foreign policy. But as the Republican Party recovers from the November election and finds its issue compass going forward, foreign policy should never be far behind—not least because of what Dan Drezner writes in a new Foreign Affairs essay on the GOP: Republicans finally saw the end of their dominance of public opinion on foreign policy they have held since the era of the Vietnam War.

Conservatives may already be tired of what they perceive to be lectures on their party’s ills from those who don’t share their ideological preferences. I don’t blame them. But Drezner’s essay is worth reading because Drezner generally eschews ad hominem attacks and his writing is tonally free of partisan hostility. Additionally, conservatives reading the essay will find that in addition to what they are accused of getting wrong, they will discover that an honest assessment of the GOP’s recent foreign policy gets a fair amount right.

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Aside from the prospect of automatic cuts in near-term defense spending, the ongoing drama over the so-called fiscal cliff continues to sideline the issue of foreign policy. But as the Republican Party recovers from the November election and finds its issue compass going forward, foreign policy should never be far behind—not least because of what Dan Drezner writes in a new Foreign Affairs essay on the GOP: Republicans finally saw the end of their dominance of public opinion on foreign policy they have held since the era of the Vietnam War.

Conservatives may already be tired of what they perceive to be lectures on their party’s ills from those who don’t share their ideological preferences. I don’t blame them. But Drezner’s essay is worth reading because Drezner generally eschews ad hominem attacks and his writing is tonally free of partisan hostility. Additionally, conservatives reading the essay will find that in addition to what they are accused of getting wrong, they will discover that an honest assessment of the GOP’s recent foreign policy gets a fair amount right.

A great deal of Drezner’s criticism revolves around rhetoric. Thus, there were moments when Mitt Romney, for example, squandered opportunities with unforced errors. The most memorable instance was Romney’s decision to call Russia our “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” Romney was guilty of the same mistake the Obama administration made with regard to Russia: They both overestimated Russia’s power. Obama thought Russia could and would deliver all sorts of cooperation on a range of issues. Yet Vladimir Putin had no intention and in many cases no ability do more than talk tough. Putin simply bluffed his way to more and more American concessions, and pocketed them.

Drezner expands his criticism to an issue directly relevant to the current budget debate. “Republicans continually attempt to justify extremely high levels of defense spending, for example, on the grounds that the United States supposedly faces greater threats now than during the Cold War,” he writes. It is essential that conservatives, and especially the Republican politicians taking part in the standoff over the fiscal cliff, understand how to advocate for defense spending.

It is true that the existence of foreign threats doesn’t necessitate, by itself, historic levels of defense spending. But those threats are far from the only justification for the defense budget. Republican officeholders would do well to turn to another essay in the same issue of Foreign Affairs that makes this case. The essay, by Stephen G. Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William C. Wohlforth, explains how a fully engaged America abroad yields both security and financial benefits that make defense spending a bargain.

They note that American security guarantees around the globe prevent the rise of regional hegemons, military conflict, and the spread of destabilizing nuclear weapons more often than not; secure multilateral cooperation; and bring the U.S. economic benefits by both strengthening the dollar and giving America leverage when it comes to negotiating free trade agreements. Romney’s repeated exhortations that we’d want a military so powerful no one would dare “test us” is an inadequate justification for a highly justifiable policy.

Finally, Drezner writes:

George W. Bush’s greatest foreign policy accomplishments came not in the military realm but in rethinking economic statecraft. He signed more free-trade agreements than any other president. Through the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the Bush administration devised innovative ways of advancing U.S. interests and values abroad. In developing the architecture for improved financial coercion, the administration paved the way for the sanctions that are now crippling Iran’s economy. Force can be an essential tool of statecraft, but it should rarely be the first tool used, and sometimes it can be most effective if never used at all. Republicans understand the power of the free market at home; they need to revive their enthusiasm for the power of the market abroad, as well.

There are two points to make here. First, Romney had no trouble grasping this, as evidenced by his concentration on economics-based statecraft in the foreign policy debate with President Obama. Republicans remain the party of free trade, and show no sign of abandoning that position. Second, on Iran, there isn’t a ton of daylight between Drezner and the right. Conservatives have pushed for tough sanctions backed up by the credible threat of force. Obama has opposed and weakened tough sanctions every step of the way, and his administration has worked to undermine any credible threat of force.

Drezner says bellicosity is hurting the GOP with a war-weary public. He’s right that the public is war-weary, but Iran is not the issue where this is hurting the GOP. In fact, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported, public support for military action against Iran in the event sanctions fail is now at a high point. Even out of power, the GOP won that argument.

This is not to say that last year’s crop of GOP presidential candidates always had the policy right–far from it. From flirtations with a trade war with China to undue nostalgia for Hosni Mubarak to loyalty investigations into Hillary Clinton’s longtime aide, there were plenty of forgettable—and dangerous–suggestions. But the 2016 crop of candidates will likely be quite different from the 2012 cast of characters, which too often spoke as if the world wasn’t listening. It was–and is–and conservatives need to remember (or learn) how to reclaim what was a well-earned advantage over the left on foreign policy.

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Poll: Can the GOP Win Over Hispanics?

Via Politico’s Alexander Burns, the latest poll from right-leaning pollster Resurgent Republic found that the GOP has some serious image problems with Hispanic voters:

• Hispanic voters say the Republican party does not respect the values and concerns of the Hispanic community by 51 to 44 percent in Florida, 54 to 40 percent in New Mexico, 59 to 35 percent in Nevada, and 63 to 30 percent in Colorado.

• Majorities of voters in each state say that “is anti-immigrant” better describes the Republican Party, while the Democratic Party has big leads on “understands the needs and concerns of Hispanic voters,” and “makes an effort to win Hispanic voters.”

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Via Politico’s Alexander Burns, the latest poll from right-leaning pollster Resurgent Republic found that the GOP has some serious image problems with Hispanic voters:

• Hispanic voters say the Republican party does not respect the values and concerns of the Hispanic community by 51 to 44 percent in Florida, 54 to 40 percent in New Mexico, 59 to 35 percent in Nevada, and 63 to 30 percent in Colorado.

• Majorities of voters in each state say that “is anti-immigrant” better describes the Republican Party, while the Democratic Party has big leads on “understands the needs and concerns of Hispanic voters,” and “makes an effort to win Hispanic voters.”

Only 27 percent of Hispanic voters supported Mitt Romney, a steep drop from 2004 when 44 percent voted to reelect George W. Bush. It’s still not the lowest of recent elections–in 1996, the GOP won just 21 percent of the Hispanic vote–but as an increasing share of the electorate, the Hispanic vote is becoming ever more critical.

While there isn’t a lot of good news here, the Resurgent Republic poll (which can be read in full here) did find room for growth and common ground. One area that Republicans can work on is the tone of the immigration debate. Hispanic voters may not be monolithic when it comes to immigration policy, but there are sensitivities the GOP might want to keep in mind when discussing the issues:

The tone Republicans use to discuss immigration has an impact on Hispanics who are not directly affected by the issue. Some Republicans argue that harsh rhetoric and policies regarding illegal immigrants will not affect Hispanics who are American citizens. But this survey suggests otherwise. All Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States. Yet Mitt Romney lost Puerto Rican voters in Florida by 64 to 36 percent, one of the main reasons why Obama won the state. Many Hispanic Americans take attacks on undocumented Hispanics as an attack on the entire Hispanic community.

There is also room for outreach when it comes to federal spending, taxes and regulations:

While a majority of Hispanics in each state believes in increasing government investment, a significant minority believes in lower government spending, lower taxes, and fewer regulations: 42 percent in Florida, 38 percent in Colorado, 39 percent in New Mexico, and 40 percent in Nevada. All of those are higher percentages than Romney received in 2012, significantly higher in Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada.

Republicans probably won’t be able to win the majority of Hispanic voters. But it seems that  there is room for significant improvement–especially since many lean right on social and fiscal issues. And with the number of Hispanic voters growing, that could be enough to swing a future presidential race.

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Is the GOP Digital Team (Still) in Denial?

In this month’s issue of COMMENTARY, Benjamin Domenech has an excellent article on the Republicans’ broken technological machine. In it he explains why the Romney digital team was unable to catch up to Obama’s record-setting digital team that many have likened to “Big Brother” in its scope.

Domenech contends, and I agree, that even taking the strength of Obama’s digital team into account, the Romney campaign didn’t scratch the surface of what they should have accomplished on the digital front. The issues of the Romney campaign were varied and are not only due to the failure of Project Orca. Domenech explains:

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In this month’s issue of COMMENTARY, Benjamin Domenech has an excellent article on the Republicans’ broken technological machine. In it he explains why the Romney digital team was unable to catch up to Obama’s record-setting digital team that many have likened to “Big Brother” in its scope.

Domenech contends, and I agree, that even taking the strength of Obama’s digital team into account, the Romney campaign didn’t scratch the surface of what they should have accomplished on the digital front. The issues of the Romney campaign were varied and are not only due to the failure of Project Orca. Domenech explains:

While digital efforts were the primary focus of the Obama campaign from the beginning, with data miners and tech gurus culled from Silicon Valley, they were a relatively late addition to the Romney effort. Its digital operation was staffed after the rest of the campaign, with an operation that seemed remarkably inefficient for a campaign that was supposed to do things with the rigor of Romney’s research-intensive firm, Bain Capital. There were plenty of people working on the digital side, but tasks were poorly assigned and hampered by restrictive approval processes. Romney’s staff was politically diverse and more used to the world of business than politics—some had never worked on a political campaign before. Frustration set in, then boredom, then Facebook-browsing. The quiet was deafening.

For digital staffers who recognized they were playing catch-up with the Obama machine that had never stopped building after 2008, the contrasts were infuriating. Where the Obama campaign’s content and emails were tailored to the interests of individually targeted demographic communities based on topics of interest and other data-mined priorities, Romney’s campaign didn’t even make distinctions between whether someone had given $5 or $500, or whether the name came to the database through a petition about health care or energy policy.

The campaign was also fiercely hierarchical, to the surprise of some longtime Romney staffers who found their ideas for innovation shunted aside by senior staff and consultants who were unapproachable and unresponsive.

Late last month RedState’s Erick Erickson had a stinging post on the incestuous and unproductive relationship between consultants and the Romney campaign, contending that a group of consultants were “the seeds of Mitt Romney’s ruin and the RNC’s get out the vote (GOTV) effort collapsed — bled to death by charlatan consultants making millions off the party, its donors, and the grassroots.” Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, it appears that his advice on the usefulness of these consultants has more or less fallen on deaf ears. 

Yesterday a “private” meeting (which was immediately reported on by sources present) took place between some members of Romney’s digital team and other major conservative digital strategists. It appears that many found it to be a positive and uplifting experience, and that discussing the enormous gap between the two sides didn’t overwhelm or discourage those present. Roll Call reported that “One source said the meeting was so positive that it was almost as if Romney had won.”

That attitude calls to mind the overconfidence that marked most of the Romney campaign, especially after the first debate. In Domenech’s piece he quotes Romney pollster Neil Newhouse, who announced boldly in a staff meeting, “We’re f—ing gonna win this thing.” The digital divide between the two sides is not insurmountable, but it should not be filling anyone in the conservative movement with anything resembling confidence either. The fact that this meeting left many leaving feeling positive is a worrisome indication that the consultants and strategists who underestimated their ability to compete with the Obama campaign are still living in an alternate reality. 

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Liberals Already Miss Mitt Romney

There is more than enough silly commentary on the so-called fiscal cliff negotiations to go around, but you can’t do much better than Dana Milbank’s column today for the Washington Post. Milbank’s column emerges out of the latest trend in liberal opinion writing: now that the election is over, they have made a conscious decision to consider being more honest in their political pronouncements.

Reason magazine flagged a prime example of this on Monday, when they picked up on a quote from the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg: “[Obama] was the champion of our side, he vanquished the foe….. [but] now liberals don’t have to worry about hurting his chances for re-election, so they can be tougher in urging him to do what he should be doing.” Milbank’s entry today isn’t quite at Hertzberg’s level, but it’s in the same vein. Now that the election is over, Milbank can admit it: the country really needs Mitt Romney.

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There is more than enough silly commentary on the so-called fiscal cliff negotiations to go around, but you can’t do much better than Dana Milbank’s column today for the Washington Post. Milbank’s column emerges out of the latest trend in liberal opinion writing: now that the election is over, they have made a conscious decision to consider being more honest in their political pronouncements.

Reason magazine flagged a prime example of this on Monday, when they picked up on a quote from the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg: “[Obama] was the champion of our side, he vanquished the foe….. [but] now liberals don’t have to worry about hurting his chances for re-election, so they can be tougher in urging him to do what he should be doing.” Milbank’s entry today isn’t quite at Hertzberg’s level, but it’s in the same vein. Now that the election is over, Milbank can admit it: the country really needs Mitt Romney.

You might think that liberals would appreciate Romney’s decision to step out of the spotlight and accept his loss to Obama with grace and dignity. After all, even though John McCain is still a senator, nearly every time he criticizes President Obama it is chalked up to an apparent case of sour grapes over the election. Romney isn’t even in office. But no matter. Milbank wants Romney back in the arena, and he’s going to taunt him out of hiding:

Never again, likely, will his voice and influence be as powerful as they are now. Yet rather than stepping forward to help find a way out of the fiscal standoff, or to help his party rebuild itself, he delivered a perfunctory concession speech, told wealthy donors that Obama won by giving “gifts” to minorities, then avoided the press at a private lunch with President Obama.

Though keeping nominal residence in Massachusetts, the state he led as governor, he moved out to his California home and has been spotted at Disneyland, at the new “Twilight” movie, at a pizza place, pumping gas and going to the gym. In warm weather, he plans to live at his lakefront manse in New Hampshire. The man who spoke passionately about his love for the American auto industry has been driving around in a new Audi Q7.

A former adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, told Rucker that Romney will “be involved in some fashion” in public service. And nobody can begrudge Romney some downtime. But his failure to engage now, at a time when he could have the most clout, reinforces the impression that his candidacy was less about principle and patriotism than about him.

That’s what you get for bowing out gracefully and spending time with your family, if you’re a Republican. But put aside the fact that Republicans are trying to move on from much of Romney’s problematic messaging during the election and rebuild their brand around some of their more popular elected officials. Did Milbank always think of Romney as a man whose involvement in public life was so important to the country? No.

In a sarcastic response to conservative complaints that the media was being unfairly critical of Romney, Milbank suggested in September that the press back off. Romney, he said, was a gaffe machine, and simply for the entertainment value the press should help him get elected. “Admittedly, this may not be the best outcome for the country, or for the world,” Milbank snickered, adding that “he could bring transatlantic relations back to War of 1812 levels.”

But the fiscal cliff is about economics, and that’s where Romney’s business experience could come in handy, right? What did pre-election Milbank think of Romney’s business experience? He summed it up in an August column in which he said that a business-oriented video game his young daughter played functioned “strikingly like Bain Capital did under Mitt Romney.” And how is that? “The game is devoid of business ethics,” he wrote.

Romney was a liar, Milbank said in the week of the election. But that might be because he’s a brainwashed zombie, as Milbank had proposed a month earlier. By the time the election was over, Milbank said, the Romney campaign had “abandoned any pretense of being a campaign for the common man.”

In some ways, Milbank’s column is actually a breakthrough in bipartisanship. It took Democrats quite some time to decide that Ronald Reagan wasn’t purely evil through and through. It only took them a few years to reconsider George W. Bush in light of contemporary Republican officeholders. And now it has taken only a matter of weeks for the left to admit that the Republican presidential candidate isn’t who they said he was; he’s not so bad after all, and their guy isn’t so great, it turns out. At this rate, it won’t be long before liberals come to grips with reality before, instead of after, a presidential election.

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In Christie’s World, It’s All About Chris

Who would have ever thought it? Underneath it all, the tough-guy governor and former prosecutor who doesn’t scruple at angrily lecturing teachers, parents, taxpayers, reporters and anyone else who dares to question his policies or motives is a sensitive soul who is as needy of love and understanding as a guest on “Oprah.” After years in the public eye spent flipping off his detractors and daring them to try and do something about it, Chris Christie now needs a hug.

That’s the upshot of an unintentionally hilarious analysis published today in the New York Times, in which we are told the New Jersey governor is “deeply misunderstood and wounded” by the lingering hostility he continues to face from Republicans who think he threw Mitt Romney under the bus in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, when he went out of his way to embrace and endorse President Obama. The accusations that Christie lost the election for the Republicans are preposterous since Romney’s problems were bigger than the hurricane. But it is hardly surprising that Christie doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. As he demonstrated during the Republican National Convention and the subsequent presidential campaign, in Chris Christie’s world, it’s all about Chris. The governor’s tolerance for any other frame of reference is nonexistent. What is so telling about the subsequent controversy is not the resentment of many Republicans around the nation, but Christie being hurt by it.

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Who would have ever thought it? Underneath it all, the tough-guy governor and former prosecutor who doesn’t scruple at angrily lecturing teachers, parents, taxpayers, reporters and anyone else who dares to question his policies or motives is a sensitive soul who is as needy of love and understanding as a guest on “Oprah.” After years in the public eye spent flipping off his detractors and daring them to try and do something about it, Chris Christie now needs a hug.

That’s the upshot of an unintentionally hilarious analysis published today in the New York Times, in which we are told the New Jersey governor is “deeply misunderstood and wounded” by the lingering hostility he continues to face from Republicans who think he threw Mitt Romney under the bus in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, when he went out of his way to embrace and endorse President Obama. The accusations that Christie lost the election for the Republicans are preposterous since Romney’s problems were bigger than the hurricane. But it is hardly surprising that Christie doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. As he demonstrated during the Republican National Convention and the subsequent presidential campaign, in Chris Christie’s world, it’s all about Chris. The governor’s tolerance for any other frame of reference is nonexistent. What is so telling about the subsequent controversy is not the resentment of many Republicans around the nation, but Christie being hurt by it.

Let’s specify that Christie may well have been completely sincere in his actions during the hurricane and that he felt genuine gratitude to the president for his response to the crisis, even if in retrospect the performance of FEMA during Sandy may not have been much more effective than it was during the Katrina disaster in 2005. He may have been “just doing his job,” but his shock at the reaction of Republicans who thought he overdid his thank you to Obama was hardly surprising given the context of a heated campaign.

I don’t think Christie was consciously undermining Romney, but I do believe his nod to the president was not unconnected to the needs of his own re-election campaign. He may or may not run for president in 2016, but he needs to win re-election in blue New Jersey next year, and giving Obama that much love didn’t hurt his standing among voters in the Garden State.

That is just common-sense politics and, as was the case with Mitt Romney’s experience in Massachusetts, the things a Republican who wants to be elected governor of a Democrat-dominated state must do and say are not going to be the same things he will say when running for president. But it says a lot about Christie that he is so bewildered by the fact that conservatives around the country are not happy with him right now.

Those same conservatives cheered Christie as they watched the YouTube videos where he brusquely trashed his opponents and dismissed their point of view. But now they are getting a taste of the same treatment from him and understanding the sense of entitlement that pervades his public persona. He is a politician who is not inclined to try to view the world from any one else’s perspective.

By the same token, that same character trait is responsible for Christie’s own lack of understanding of why so many Republicans are mad at him. Expecting to be cheered at the recent annual Republican Governor’s Conference in Las Vegas, he wound up getting the cold shoulder from many in the party. But rather than trying to understand their feelings, Christie is not backing down. That some in his camp feel the need to whine about it to the New York Times, of all papers, tells us a lot about how self-involved the governor and his entourage come across.

Christie has bigger problems than the grudge many Republicans are holding against him. He has a state that still must deal with the impact of the hurricane and a re-election race in which he may have to face off against a tough opponent like Newark Mayor Cory Booker. But if he survives that test and decides to run for president, as most people expect him to do, he may have to find a way to reach out to those Republicans he has offended. Unless his personality changes in the next few years, that’s not going to be easy.

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Romney Reminds Us Why He Lost

Conservatives have spent the last week dissecting their failure in the presidential election. But one element of that defeat has been largely absent from the discussion: the candidate. That’s because in the last month of the presidential campaign something remarkable happened. Though he had previously been distrusted by much of the Republican base and widely regarded as a poor campaigner, Mitt Romney seemed to erase all of the doubts of his supporters. His strong performance in the first presidential debate gave the Republicans faith in their leader as well as momentum.

In retrospect, that last surge of optimism on the right about the 2012 election seems foolish. As we have already discussed in detail, the polls that showed Romney leading or at least even with Obama during this period were almost certainly wrong. Democratic turnout would, to my surprise, resemble that of the “hope and change” moment of 2008, while fewer people voted for Romney than John McCain. A number of factors were responsible for this: a failure to respond to the changing demography of the nation including the Hispanic vote, the GOP’s comically inept get-out-the-vote effort, media bias, Hurricane Sandy, and Romney’s inability to exploit the Benghazi fiasco. But yesterday we were reminded that although those explanations were valid, there was one other reason why Obama won: Mitt Romney.

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Conservatives have spent the last week dissecting their failure in the presidential election. But one element of that defeat has been largely absent from the discussion: the candidate. That’s because in the last month of the presidential campaign something remarkable happened. Though he had previously been distrusted by much of the Republican base and widely regarded as a poor campaigner, Mitt Romney seemed to erase all of the doubts of his supporters. His strong performance in the first presidential debate gave the Republicans faith in their leader as well as momentum.

In retrospect, that last surge of optimism on the right about the 2012 election seems foolish. As we have already discussed in detail, the polls that showed Romney leading or at least even with Obama during this period were almost certainly wrong. Democratic turnout would, to my surprise, resemble that of the “hope and change” moment of 2008, while fewer people voted for Romney than John McCain. A number of factors were responsible for this: a failure to respond to the changing demography of the nation including the Hispanic vote, the GOP’s comically inept get-out-the-vote effort, media bias, Hurricane Sandy, and Romney’s inability to exploit the Benghazi fiasco. But yesterday we were reminded that although those explanations were valid, there was one other reason why Obama won: Mitt Romney.

As Seth noted earlier today, in a conference call with donors and the press Romney inserted his foot firmly in his mouth once again when he claimed the president’s offer of “gifts” to voters was the reason he lost. Though there is a rationale critique to be made of the big government mentality that Obama advocated, this was wrongheaded on a lot of levels. As Jason Riley said today on Opinion Journal Live, this is just a Republican version of liberal attempts to blame voters for their defeats, of which Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas was the most prominent.

Even worse than that, the comments were nothing more than a repeat of Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe, the revelation of which was widely, and rightly, regarded as the low point of his campaign. It also brought us all back to the doubts that were expressed about Romney’s ability to defeat the president back during the GOP primaries.

Let’s specify that over the course of the last year, we learned a lot about who Mitt Romney is as a man and most of that was very much to his credit. The campaign brought into focus his intelligence, his seriousness of purpose and above all his innate decency. He is a good man and his skills would have enabled him to deal with the nation’s problems and be a good president.

But he was never going to be a good presidential candidate. The hole at the center of the campaign was always his inability to connect with ordinary voters. That was exacerbated by the disingenuous and largely false assault on his character that was the centerpiece of the Democratic campaign. But part of the reason that Obama was able to paint a high-minded and charitable man like Romney as a heartless plutocrat was the Republican’s awkwardness and inability to talk about himself or his ideas in a manner that would have made these slanders irrelevant. Romney’s propensity for gaffes, his tin ear for speaking to the people, and a background that made it easy for the Democrats to smear him were on display throughout 2012. Those who argued that he was the most electable of the Republicans who ran for president were not wrong, but that was always more of a criticism of his rivals than a compliment to him.

Conservatives despise the president so much that they were largely blind to his appeal to so much of the electorate. But in the last month of the 2012 campaign, they also tended to forget about the reasons why Romney was a fairly easy target for the president and his minions.

Ideology is important, but personalities always drive presidential politics. As much as Republicans are right to do some soul-searching about constituencies they have foolishly written off, as well as tactical political errors that were made this past year, any attempt to dissect the 2012 election must also include a realization that they didn’t have a very good candidate. If they pick a more impressive politician from their deep bench to lead them in 2016 (a year when the Democrats will no longer be able to rely on the historic appeal of Barack Obama) they are likely to do a lot better on Election Day.

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What Romney Calls “Gifts,” Voters Call Solutions

The Obama reelection campaign’s impressive turnout and get-out-the-vote strategy took the president’s Republican opponents by surprise. But it appears to also be teaching Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan an incomplete, if not totally wrong, lesson about their loss to President Obama. Earlier this week, Ryan told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that “urban” turnout was key for the president, and dismissed the notion that the GOP ticket’s vision for the country was rejected by voters.

And then yesterday, on a conference call with donors and supporters, Romney expanded on that argument. He said the president offered “gifts” to minority voters, and named Obamacare and immigration as important parts of that. The New York Times reports:

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The Obama reelection campaign’s impressive turnout and get-out-the-vote strategy took the president’s Republican opponents by surprise. But it appears to also be teaching Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan an incomplete, if not totally wrong, lesson about their loss to President Obama. Earlier this week, Ryan told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that “urban” turnout was key for the president, and dismissed the notion that the GOP ticket’s vision for the country was rejected by voters.

And then yesterday, on a conference call with donors and supporters, Romney expanded on that argument. He said the president offered “gifts” to minority voters, and named Obamacare and immigration as important parts of that. The New York Times reports:

“In each case, they were very generous in what they gave to those groups,” Mr. Romney said, contrasting Mr. Obama’s strategy to his own of “talking about big issues for the whole country: military strategy, foreign policy, a strong economy, creating jobs and so forth.”…

“You can imagine for somebody making $25,000 or $30,000 or $35,000 a year, being told you’re now going to get free health care, particularly if you don’t have it, getting free health care worth, what, $10,000 per family, in perpetuity — I mean, this is huge,” Mr. Romney said. “Likewise with Hispanic voters, free health care was a big plus. But in addition with regards to Hispanic voters, the amnesty for children of illegals, the so-called Dream Act kids, was a huge plus for that voting group.”

Romney is not wrong in suggesting that demographic groups preferred what they heard from Obama to what they heard from Romney, but he is wrong in his characterization of it. First of all, there are many reasons Obama won reelection, not least of which is that he apparently had a 52 percent approval rating on Election Day.

Second, the obvious objection to Romney’s comments is that his own version of the health care reform plan served as a model for Obama’s. Did Romney think he was giving away free “gifts” to minorities and young voters when he designed the plan? Or did he think he was serving the people who elected him by solving a quality-of-life issue for the entire state of Massachusetts? In politics, it’s easy to impugn the motives of your opponent, but it’s fair to say that Obama targeted what he and many Americans saw as an economic hardship and a great injustice, especially to the poor. Romney may or may not agree with that, but I doubt he would take well to someone characterizing his signature achievement in office as crude politicking or vote buying.

And that gets to the larger problem with these comments. A very large portion of this country sees our immigration laws and those in favor of even stricter measures as a moral failure on the part of a country of immigrants. Hispanics don’t see “amnesty”–a path to citizenship–as a “gift” in exchange for their vote. It isn’t candy; it’s the difference between opportunities for their children and their families being torn apart.

Republicans don’t have to agree with liberal solutions to the problems facing the country. But they certainly should not ridicule the need for reform at many levels of government–indeed, they should embrace it, for much in our federal government needs reform. And making broad statements about jobs isn’t enough. To wit, the Romney message to Hispanics was that he will create jobs here but he wants them to “self-deport,” thus making those jobs unavailable to them anyway. In such a case, why on earth should they care what his jobs plan is?

Obama offered specifics, and Romney offered principles. But conservative principles should lead to conservative solutions–specifics, in other words. Romney doesn’t seem to have understood this. But he should take a look around his party. Republican governors like Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Rick Snyder, Rick Perry, and others offered voters the combination of conservative principles and conservative policy proposals. It is a winning combination, even in blue New Jersey. And it can be a winning combination nationally as well. That’s the lesson Romney should have learned on Election Day.

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Jindal: The Republican Party Is a Wreck

Thanks to reports about the Romney campaign’s internal polling problems, disastrous get-out-the-vote schemes, and some of the inevitable internecine finger pointing that follows the loss of a presidential election, the dust hasn’t yet settled on the Romney campaign’s post-mortems. But as the soul searching begins to shift to judging the GOP on the whole, Bobby Jindal would like that judgment to be harsh.

The Republican governor of Louisiana, a popular 41-year-old reformer with a reputation for competent management and policy expertise, unloaded on the Republican Party in an interview with Politico. Jindal criticized Romney’s “47 percent” remarks, but made clear he understands that the right has a branding problem it cannot lay at the feet of its nominee this year:

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Thanks to reports about the Romney campaign’s internal polling problems, disastrous get-out-the-vote schemes, and some of the inevitable internecine finger pointing that follows the loss of a presidential election, the dust hasn’t yet settled on the Romney campaign’s post-mortems. But as the soul searching begins to shift to judging the GOP on the whole, Bobby Jindal would like that judgment to be harsh.

The Republican governor of Louisiana, a popular 41-year-old reformer with a reputation for competent management and policy expertise, unloaded on the Republican Party in an interview with Politico. Jindal criticized Romney’s “47 percent” remarks, but made clear he understands that the right has a branding problem it cannot lay at the feet of its nominee this year:

“It is no secret we had a number of Republicans damage our brand this year with offensive, bizarre comments — enough of that,” Jindal said. “It’s not going to be the last time anyone says something stupid within our party, but it can’t be tolerated within our party. We’ve also had enough of this dumbed-down conservatism. We need to stop being simplistic, we need to trust the intelligence of the American people and we need to stop insulting the intelligence of the voters.”

Calling on the GOP to be “the party of ideas, details and intelligent solutions,” the Louisianan urged the party to “stop reducing everything to mindless slogans, tag lines, 30-second ads that all begin to sound the same.”

Jindal, who was a frequent suggestion for vice presidential nominee this cycle and is expected to at least consider running in 2016, was critical–but on target. Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan are both energetic policy-oriented politicians, which explains in part why they ran ahead of the party’s Senate candidates. Some of those Senate candidates imploded–both Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock lost surefire GOP seats by making comments about rape–but what about the rest of the candidates?

As the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake wrote last week, nine other Republican candidates ran behind Romney, even in states Romney won. That means the scenario many conservatives feared–that Romney was a lackluster nominee who would hurt Republican enthusiasm and thus down-ticket candidates–was flipped on its head. Romney and Ryan energized conservatives to the point the right thought it was sailing to victory, while Republicans running in down-ticket races underperformed even with GOP enthusiasm. (You could even make the case that the “rape” comments and the like fed an anti-GOP narrative that hurt Romney.) Here’s Blake:

In five races, the GOP candidate under-performed Romney by at least nine points. This includes Reps. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) and Rick Berg (R-N.D.), who both lost in states that Romney carried by at least 13 points. (Maine is a bit of a special case, since there was a third-party candidate in the Senate race.)…

But even if you look at only the open seat contests, the GOP under-performed in most of those races — up to and including two people who won: Rep. Jeff Flake (R) in Arizona and state Sen. Deb Fischer (R) in Nebraska.

Jindal took a reform-minded tone in his interview with Politico, advocating tougher regulation of the big banks (an idea gaining steam on the right), reforming the tax code, a comprehensive approach to energy production, and school choice. The latter two are areas of particular expertise for Jindal, who recently enacted his own education reform in Louisiana and expanded offshore oil drilling.

He was, however, lukewarm on the subject of immigration reform, suggesting the newfound support on the right for policies once derided as “amnesty” is far from universal, and would also pit Jindal against some of the other GOPers thought to be viable 2016 candidates. Nonetheless, Jindal’s comments indicate a recognition that although President Obama won reelection convincingly, he did so while leaving major issues–education, energy, immigration, financial regulation–on the table for creative, reformist Republicans intent on rebranding the party in their image.

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Will GOP Learn Its GOTV Lesson?

Last week, I discussed the disaster that was the Romney campaign’s Project ORCA. On Election Day over 37,000 volunteers spent the day struggling with a flawed and crashing GOTV (get out the vote) computer program, instead of actually getting out the vote. Those volunteers were supposed to be reporting on voter turnout in swing states, and in many instances spent the day troubleshooting with overwhelmed Romney campaign staffers in Boston over a computer program that had never been stress tested. 

Since the election, some details have emerged from frustrated staffers involved with the campaign alleging that the difficulties the Romney campaign encountered with ORCA, as well as other digital problems, were the responsibility of consultants hired by the campaign who were more interested in their own bottom line than winning. Indeed, Romney’s digital director Zac Moffat told the Daily Caller that “he would not elaborate on the record about who made Project ORCA, but said it was not developed by Targeted Victory [Moffat's co-founded firm] or the campaign itself.”

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Last week, I discussed the disaster that was the Romney campaign’s Project ORCA. On Election Day over 37,000 volunteers spent the day struggling with a flawed and crashing GOTV (get out the vote) computer program, instead of actually getting out the vote. Those volunteers were supposed to be reporting on voter turnout in swing states, and in many instances spent the day troubleshooting with overwhelmed Romney campaign staffers in Boston over a computer program that had never been stress tested. 

Since the election, some details have emerged from frustrated staffers involved with the campaign alleging that the difficulties the Romney campaign encountered with ORCA, as well as other digital problems, were the responsibility of consultants hired by the campaign who were more interested in their own bottom line than winning. Indeed, Romney’s digital director Zac Moffat told the Daily Caller that “he would not elaborate on the record about who made Project ORCA, but said it was not developed by Targeted Victory [Moffat's co-founded firm] or the campaign itself.”

We’ve heard very little about what went wrong on the record from top-level campaign staff. Today Romney’s political director Rich Beeson gave a very perplexing interview to National Review’s Katrina Trinko. He told Trinko, 

“We hit the numbers we needed to hit. Our ground game turned out the people it needed to turnout. They just turned out more. They turned out 18 to 29 [year olds] at a higher level. They turned out African-Americans at a higher level. They turned out Hispanics at a higher level.”

“We hit the numbers we needed to hit”? Really? The numbers the Romney campaign needed to hit were, as NRO’s Ramesh Ponnuru tweeted, the numbers needed to win. Republicans saw 1.4 million fewer votes in 2012 verses 2008. Granted, turnout for Obama was off by a far greater amount–7.7 million voters– yet if Romney had brought out the same number of voters as McCain did in 2008 we would be talking about a Romney victory, not a Romney defeat. Romney even drew fewer Mormon voters than George W. Bush did in 2004 (numbers for the 2008 race are unavailable). Romney staffers could point to several positive stories from their campaign, but turnout isn’t one of them. 

Beeson went on to defend not only ORCA in principle, but also in practice on Election Day:

Beeson contends that while Orca had its flaws on Election Day, it was a smart idea. “Did the overall system work the way that we wanted it to? No. But it is a good precursor for what I think we’ll want to be able to design and implement and improve on in coming elections? Absolutely,” he says.

With an election as close as Tuesday’s (NRO’s Jim Geraghty put the margin of victory at 407,000 votes between Romney and Obama in key swing states) what would have been a better use of resources? Should volunteers have been tracking voter turnout in order to get results to Boston a few hours before the networks would have, or should they have instead focused on traditional GOTV efforts like door knocks, transportation to polling locations, and calling undecided voters? 

Worryingly, it appears the Romney campaign and the consultants it hired refuse to admit that ORCA was a bad strategy in theory and in practice, and that they also hope to replicate it for future campaigns. Given the huge financial investment the campaign gave to the consultants responsible for the program, it’s understandable that its utter failure is an inconvenient detail for those who would like to try to sell the program all over again. For the GOP’s sake in 2014 and 2016 and beyond, one would hope that the track record not only of ORCA, but also of the consultants and firms responsible, don’t disappear down the memory hole. For that to happen, the creators of ORCA need to be exposed by the Romney campaign’s staff as a last service to future GOP candidates. 

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Can the GOP Change on Immigration?

Post-mortems on President Obama’s election victory have harped on his dominant hold on the Hispanic vote. That has, in turn, led to speculation about the Republican Party changing its tune on immigration, an issue which is widely — and probably quite rightly — viewed as a deal breaker for the majority of Hispanic voters when GOP candidates ask for their support. To that end, several prominent Republican leaders, such as House Speaker John Boehner and conservative thinkers like Charles Krauthammer, have suggested a course change for Republicans that would enable them to avoid being characterized as anti-immigrant and, by extension, anti-Hispanic.

While I’m far from sure that at this late date it will be possible for Republicans to make up the ground they’ve lost in the last decade with Hispanics by flipping on the issue, I think those advising a course change are correct. President George W. Bush was right to champion reform legislation on this issue, and his party’s failure to support him was wrong as well as a lost opportunity that may not recur. Most of those who come to this country illegally are merely seeking work, and it is high time that most conservatives stop acting as if illegals are a grave threat to the country. Nevertheless, any expectation that the bulk of party members will change their stance on the issue is probably unrealistic. The reason why most of the GOP presidential candidates pandered to the right on this issue is no mystery. Even though it is political poison for the party’s future, most in the GOP grassroots want no part of any plan to grant amnesty to the approximately 12 million illegals in the country.

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Post-mortems on President Obama’s election victory have harped on his dominant hold on the Hispanic vote. That has, in turn, led to speculation about the Republican Party changing its tune on immigration, an issue which is widely — and probably quite rightly — viewed as a deal breaker for the majority of Hispanic voters when GOP candidates ask for their support. To that end, several prominent Republican leaders, such as House Speaker John Boehner and conservative thinkers like Charles Krauthammer, have suggested a course change for Republicans that would enable them to avoid being characterized as anti-immigrant and, by extension, anti-Hispanic.

While I’m far from sure that at this late date it will be possible for Republicans to make up the ground they’ve lost in the last decade with Hispanics by flipping on the issue, I think those advising a course change are correct. President George W. Bush was right to champion reform legislation on this issue, and his party’s failure to support him was wrong as well as a lost opportunity that may not recur. Most of those who come to this country illegally are merely seeking work, and it is high time that most conservatives stop acting as if illegals are a grave threat to the country. Nevertheless, any expectation that the bulk of party members will change their stance on the issue is probably unrealistic. The reason why most of the GOP presidential candidates pandered to the right on this issue is no mystery. Even though it is political poison for the party’s future, most in the GOP grassroots want no part of any plan to grant amnesty to the approximately 12 million illegals in the country.

There was a reason why, of all issues, the generally moderate Mitt Romney chose immigration as the one on which he would tack hardest to the right. In the one instance where his pose as a “severely conservative” Republican seemed to resonate, Romney attacked Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich for their more liberal stands on the issue. The tactic worked, and even though Romney’s stand shifted a bit to the center as the campaign wore on — by accepting a modified version of the DREAM Act, which would grant a path to citizenship for children brought here illegally but subsequently served in the U.S. military — until November 6, there was little sign that his party was ready to reassess its position.

In part, this reluctance to shift on immigration stems from the fact that a great many Americans believe the starting point to any discussion of the issue ought to be defense of the rule of law. Though some of those who obsess about the issue have blown the dangers that stem from immigration out of proportion and sound like 19th century “Know Nothings,” most Republican primary voters who care about the issue take a less extreme position. They believe the idea that the United States ought not to be able to control its borders is ludicrous. Treating law breaking in the form of illegal immigration as nothing more serious than a traffic ticket is offensive.

That’s why strong majorities of Americans polled on the topic generally support the controversial Arizona law that was both mischaracterized and condemned by President Obama in the second presidential debate. There’s nothing unconstitutional or unreasonable about inquiring about the immigration status of someone who has already been arrested on a different charge.

The plain fact is that the 12 million illegals that are already here are not going to be rounded up and deported. The government has neither the resources nor the will do so, and expectations that this will happen or, as Romney ludicrously put it, they will “self deport,” is detached from reality. Sooner or later the government will have to recognize their status and give them a path to legality, if not citizenship.

But anyone who thinks most Republican voters are prepared to tolerate a shift on the issue in the immediate future is dreaming. While there has always been a faction of leaders and thinkers that supported a strategy based on extending rights to the illegals, the last two elections show that this group is a minority within the GOP.

It should also be acknowledged that such efforts are fated to be largely futile. As Seth wrote, Hispanics are not going to be impressed if they think Republicans are cynically pandering to them. A large portion of the Jewish community continues to think of the GOP the same way their grandparents thought of it: as a vestige of an old country-club elite that harbors anti-Semitic attitudes. This may be an almost deranged and twisted view of reality, since contemporary Republicans tend to be even more sympathetic to Israel and Jewish concerns than Democrats, yet it nevertheless persists. But the bad taste from the harsh rhetoric on immigration from Republicans in recent years will not be washed away any more easily, even though a change of tune from some in the party on the issue won’t hurt. A possible Marco Rubio presidential candidacy in 2016 would also have an effect on the Hispanic vote.

But assuming that it will be easy for Republican leaders to accomplish this without a very strong pushback from their voters is unrealistic. As much as a GOP shift on amnesty would be smart politics and probably good public policy, it’s not likely to happen.

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Returning from the Political Arena

It’s a pleasure to return to COMMENTARY after having served as a senior advisor in the Romney campaign. At a later date I’ll dilate on the outcome of the election. For now I simply want to say that I ended the campaign with an even higher regard for Governor Romney than I began it. He is a man of great personal decency and integrity. He single-handedly revived his campaign on the largest stage in American politics (the October 3 debate); and he became stronger over the course of the election.

Tuesday’s loss was a body blow for those associated with the campaign. Few of us saw this defeat coming, which makes the defeat all the more jarring.

Most Americans are simply relieved the campaign is over. They believe it went on for far too long, that it was much too expensive, and that it was characterized by personal attacks and petty discussions. Everyone, it seems, is sick of politics.

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It’s a pleasure to return to COMMENTARY after having served as a senior advisor in the Romney campaign. At a later date I’ll dilate on the outcome of the election. For now I simply want to say that I ended the campaign with an even higher regard for Governor Romney than I began it. He is a man of great personal decency and integrity. He single-handedly revived his campaign on the largest stage in American politics (the October 3 debate); and he became stronger over the course of the election.

Tuesday’s loss was a body blow for those associated with the campaign. Few of us saw this defeat coming, which makes the defeat all the more jarring.

Most Americans are simply relieved the campaign is over. They believe it went on for far too long, that it was much too expensive, and that it was characterized by personal attacks and petty discussions. Everyone, it seems, is sick of politics.

Post-election lamentations aren’t unusual, and they aren’t without merit. But let me offer several other observations, the first of which is that we tend to be hyper-critical about the present while idealizing the past. That’s a mistake. Consider the first real political campaign in American history, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800. It’s regarded by scholars as among the nastiest campaigns ever. One pro-Adams newspaper predicted that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

According to the New York Sun, the 1872 election between Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley deteriorated into “a shower of mud.” So have many others. During the 1980 campaign, for example, the liberal New Republic declared, “President Carter has made a grave moral error in trying to portray Ronald Reagan as a racist.” The editorial page of the Washington Post chimed in, saying, “Mr. Carter has abandoned all dignity in his round-the-clock attack on Mr. Reagan’s character.”

My point isn’t to hold up these incidents as a model for political discourse; it’s that slashing attacks are often a part of politics. Even the Lincoln-Douglas election consisted of more than the Lincoln-Douglas debates. So some perspective is in order.

Point number two: It doesn’t help matters that many who comprise the political media tend to ignore intellectually serious discussions. Rather than discussing, say, the pros and cons of a premium support system or grappling with how to increase social mobility, they prefer to obsess on the horserace aspect of the campaign, gaffes, Twitter feeds and political intrigue. Many in the press are drawn to the sensational and trivial. Increasingly they themselves are contributing to it. Yet with the campaign now over, prepare for countless journalists to travel to the Shorenstein Center and appear on Charlie Rose to complain about the superficiality of campaigns.

A final point: Campaigns are never pristine and politics is an imperfect profession. But as flawed as they are, they have helped create an extraordinary nation and produced great leaders. Politics is a means through which we deal with matters of enormous importance, from policies on taxes and health care to the nature of justice and the relationship between the citizen and the state. Which is why it has always attracted, and still attracts, good people.

Shortly after Mitt Romney conceded on Tuesday night, a writer for whom I have great respect sent me a note. “Nights like this I realize how much easier it is to be in the peanut gallery rather than in the arena,” he wrote. “Easier but less satisfying.”

As for me, I rather like the peanut gallery. But I deeply admire the individuals I have worked with and for who have entered the arena. It isn’t an easy life. But it is a satisfying one. 

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Romney’s Get Out the Vote Fiasco

The Wednesday before the election, Mitt Romney sent a special message to volunteers about a special project his campaign was working on: “With state of the art technology and an extremely dedicated group of volunteers, our campaign will have an unprecedented advantage on election day.” What is it they say about something that sounds too good to be true? It probably is. That was the case with the Romney campaign’s “Project ORCA.”

The idea behind Project ORCA was simple, albeit far too complex in execution. Romney’s Boston headquarters wanted a way to track who had been to the polls in swing states, and who had not. It was the most complicated GOTV (get out the vote) effort in GOP history. Volunteers in swing states would be assigned polling places. They would be given lists of every registered voter assigned to that polling location. Those voters would be reported on to Boston via a web application when they arrived to vote, and if that failed, via phone or, as a last resort, voice. Volunteers were to log in to the application, use their assigned pin number and password, and begin reporting on voters who had come through their polling place by ID number. A source familiar with the campaign told me that Boston would initiate calls and visits to those who had not yet gotten to the polls.

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The Wednesday before the election, Mitt Romney sent a special message to volunteers about a special project his campaign was working on: “With state of the art technology and an extremely dedicated group of volunteers, our campaign will have an unprecedented advantage on election day.” What is it they say about something that sounds too good to be true? It probably is. That was the case with the Romney campaign’s “Project ORCA.”

The idea behind Project ORCA was simple, albeit far too complex in execution. Romney’s Boston headquarters wanted a way to track who had been to the polls in swing states, and who had not. It was the most complicated GOTV (get out the vote) effort in GOP history. Volunteers in swing states would be assigned polling places. They would be given lists of every registered voter assigned to that polling location. Those voters would be reported on to Boston via a web application when they arrived to vote, and if that failed, via phone or, as a last resort, voice. Volunteers were to log in to the application, use their assigned pin number and password, and begin reporting on voters who had come through their polling place by ID number. A source familiar with the campaign told me that Boston would initiate calls and visits to those who had not yet gotten to the polls.

The story of how monumental a failure Project ORCA was on Election Day was first reported by a volunteer, John Ekdahl, on the Ace of Spades blog. After tweeting the article, I was contacted by several other volunteers who were eager to explain in greater detail just how many things went wrong with Project Orca on Tuesday.

I spoke with one volunteer in a rural Virginia county who had a similar experience to the blogger on Ace’s site. Shoshanna McCrimmon signed up to volunteer on Romney’s website several months ago. She was contacted by Dan Centinello of the Romney campaign and underwent online and phone training that lasted for several hours in order to volunteer locally on Election Day. Because of secrecy concerns, the application itself was inaccessible until the morning of the election. From the outset there were failures of organization.

Shoshanna wasn’t given the credentials necessary to gain access to the polling place and was told to arrive when the polls opened at 7. A few days before the election, she was emailed a PDF packet, which she was meant to print out, containing the names of all of the registered voters at her polling place and instructions. Her location’s packet was only dozen or so pages; Ekdahl’s packet was over sixty. The packet was supposed to contain credentials, but they did not. Shoshana’s email to the Romney campaign the night before the election about the lack of credentials went unanswered. When Shoshanna arrived on time at 7 a.m., she learned that polls had actually opened an hour prior.

Unable to test her pin number and password until that morning, she discovered, only after after she arrived at the polling location ready to work, that her pin was invalid. She spent until 2:30 that afternoon on calls to Boston every 45 minutes trying to get a new one. She attempted to input the voter information via phone dial-pad–the first backup plan–but her invalid pin number was useless. Plan C, calling in to Boston and verbally transmitting the information, was also a wash. The same phone number for dial pad and voice reporting was given–there was no option to ask to speak to Boston directly after calling in.

After finally getting her pin number in the late afternoon, Shoshanna attempted to log into the site. She had been sent an email from the Romney campaign that morning (after polls opened) telling her that cell phones were often not allowed in polling places, after she was previously warned not to forget to bring her cell phone in other emails. Thankfully, her polling place allowed her to use her cell phone. The website, on a secure server, was inaccessible from her cell phone (Ekdahl explains why in detail). By this point hundreds of voters had passed through Shoshanna’s polling station, unreported. Nevertheless, she went home, retrieved her laptop, and thanks to the pastor at the polling place (a church) she gained access to a locked wireless network. It was only at that point that Shoshanna was able to access ORCA, with only a few hours left before polls closed.

Shoshanna’s experience was far from unique. Starting in the early afternoon, reports were coming in from across swing states that ORCA had crashed. That morning, when Shoshanna was on the phone with Boston, she was told the system was crashing, unable to withstand thousands of simultaneous log-ins. The system had never been stress tested and couldn’t handle the crush of traffic all at once. Thousands of man-hours went into designing and implementing a program that was useful on one day and one day only, and on that day, it crashed. My source familiar with the campaign described it this way, “It was a giant [mess] because a political operative sold a broken product with no support or backup plan. Just another arrogant piece of the arrogant Romney campaign.”

The operative in question, Dan Centinello, Romney’s Deputy Political Director, was Shoshanna’s only point of contact with the campaign. After a two-and-a-half-hour conference call with volunteers across the country, Shoshanna still had questions about minor details about ORCA and volunteering at her polling place. Her emails were answered within 24 hours, always by Centinello. There appears to have been no delegation on Centinello’s part, and every question sent was answered by the ORCA project manager personally. It’s likely that if this was taking place with the thousands of volunteers in Project ORCA, Centinello was spending hundreds of hours answering basic questions from volunteers that could have been addressed by lower level staffers. This time would have been better spent, I would argue, testing the capabilities of ORCA and its servers and testing the application on small groups of trusted volunteers, especially elderly ones who might have difficulty with its interface (which, on election day, they did). 

One of the most basic tenets of conservatism is a loathing and mistrust of big government and bureaucracy. Project ORCA was the embodiment of big government, top-down management. Information was sent by volunteers in swing states across the country to Boston, and those in Boston were then tasked with assigning other volunteers in those same swing states to contact those who had not yet been to the polls. Boston was, at best, a detour and an unnecessary middleman in the GOTV efforts, and when that link in the chain broke, Romney’s GOTV effort crumbled on the most crucial day of his campaign. One of the most successful components of Karl Rove’s GOTV efforts with George W. Bush’s campaigns was his small-government ideological approach. Each volunteer was tasked with personally getting a handful of voters from their area to the polls, voters that they were already familiar with from their church, their children’s schools and their community. Instead of this strategy, Boston was the hub; information was sent there and GOTV assignments were delegated from thousands of miles away by Romney staffers largely unfamiliar with individuals and communities. At Ace of Spades, Ekdahl described the organizational approach of Project ORCA: “The bitter irony of this entire endeavor was that a supposedly small government candidate gutted the local structure of GOTV efforts in favor of a centralized, faceless organization in a far off place (in this case, their Boston headquarters).”

Was ORCA’s failure the reason why Romney lost Virginia by almost 116,000 votes, Ohio by 103,000, Iowa by 88,000 or why Florida is still, days later, too close to call? It’s impossible to know what a Romney campaign with working GOTV technology would have been able to accomplish. Ekdahl explained that with the failure of Project ORCA’s organization and its later meltdown on Election Day “30,000+ of the most active and fired-up volunteers were wandering around confused and frustrated when they could have been doing anything else to help. Like driving people to the polls, phone-banking, walking door-to-door, etc.” The possibility that all of the efforts of Romney’s campaign, all of the enthusiasm, went unharnessed and dormant on Election Day when they could’ve at least led to a closer election result, if not a victory, is becoming beyond frustrating for thousands of his staffers, for the millions of Americans who gave their time and money to elect Mitt Romney president as they come to learn just what a disaster ORCA seems to have been.

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Christie Shouldn’t Be the Scapegoat

Republicans are still licking their wounds today, but from the sound of it, some in the Romney campaign aren’t letting go of their vendetta with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. While this Washington Post story centered on Mitt Romney’s efforts to thank and console his supporters and made clear just how decent a guy he is, it also gave a platform for some of his staffers and leading fundraisers to vent their anger at Christie and his role in puffing up President Obama’s handling of Hurricane Sandy:

Although Romney himself stopped short of placing any blame on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who praised President Obama’s leadership during the storm, several Romney supporters privately pointed fingers at the outspoken governor.

“A lot of people feel like Christie hurt, that we definitely lost four or five points between the storm and Chris Christie giving Obama a chance to be bigger than life,” said one of Romney’s biggest fundraisers, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

Another major Romney fundraiser said Christie’s embrace of Obama after Sandy walloped his state only deepened a rift that opened between the Romney and Christie camps over the summer Christie and his wife were unhappy with Romney’s vice presidential search process, believing they were “led a little bit far down the garden path” without being picked, the fundraiser, said.

Any losing campaign needs scapegoats, and it’s clear that some in the Romney campaign are anxious to divert the focus away from their own failures. The hurricane, and Christie’s embrace of the president, was a setback. Yet a dispassionate look at the returns and the turnout figures shows that even if the weather had stayed nice on the East Coast in the week before the election, Romney would have still lost. To say that Christie lost the election for the GOP is bunk. But even though the attacks on Christie are off base and ought to stop, the controversy still tells us something about the problem with the governor and why those assuming he will succeed where Romney failed are probably wrong.

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Republicans are still licking their wounds today, but from the sound of it, some in the Romney campaign aren’t letting go of their vendetta with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. While this Washington Post story centered on Mitt Romney’s efforts to thank and console his supporters and made clear just how decent a guy he is, it also gave a platform for some of his staffers and leading fundraisers to vent their anger at Christie and his role in puffing up President Obama’s handling of Hurricane Sandy:

Although Romney himself stopped short of placing any blame on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who praised President Obama’s leadership during the storm, several Romney supporters privately pointed fingers at the outspoken governor.

“A lot of people feel like Christie hurt, that we definitely lost four or five points between the storm and Chris Christie giving Obama a chance to be bigger than life,” said one of Romney’s biggest fundraisers, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

Another major Romney fundraiser said Christie’s embrace of Obama after Sandy walloped his state only deepened a rift that opened between the Romney and Christie camps over the summer Christie and his wife were unhappy with Romney’s vice presidential search process, believing they were “led a little bit far down the garden path” without being picked, the fundraiser, said.

Any losing campaign needs scapegoats, and it’s clear that some in the Romney campaign are anxious to divert the focus away from their own failures. The hurricane, and Christie’s embrace of the president, was a setback. Yet a dispassionate look at the returns and the turnout figures shows that even if the weather had stayed nice on the East Coast in the week before the election, Romney would have still lost. To say that Christie lost the election for the GOP is bunk. But even though the attacks on Christie are off base and ought to stop, the controversy still tells us something about the problem with the governor and why those assuming he will succeed where Romney failed are probably wrong.

It’s now apparent that many in Romney’s camp as well as some of us in the media had a mistaken view of the state of the race in the days just before the storm. The belief that Romney was ahead was based on a model of the electorate that assumed that Democratic turnout would not come close to that of 2008. That was wrong. The Obama campaign really did have a massive ground game advantage over Romney’s more amateurish efforts, and the result was another wave of Democratic enthusiasm that swamped the upsurge in Republican enthusiasm. The storm and the adoring press coverage it got certainly aided the president and might have helped turn a more narrow margin for the president into the clear victory he achieved. But even if there were no Sandy and no photo op and gushing praise from Christie, Obama would still be planning a second term today.

Conservatives spent the last two years underestimating President Obama’s political strengths and paid the price for it on Tuesday, and this bout of Christie-bashing is just another instance of them engaging in denial about what really happened. But even though the Romney camp’s shots at Christie are way out of line, the governor has no one to blame but himself for the way this controversy has grown.

Christie built his reputation on his blunt, tough-guy persona that conservatives love because of his refusal to play by liberal rules in public debate about the issues. But the flip side to this is an arrogant disdain for anyone else’s point of view. Christie always operates as if he is in business for himself, and if he allowed his hurt feelings about the vice presidential nomination to affect his behavior during the campaign, that doesn’t speak well for his judgment. His instinct is always to fire back at any criticism, and that has helped keep this minor controversy about the storm alive. The governor has many attributes that recommend him to the country, but the last few months show that being a team player is not one of them.

Though no one should blame Christie for Romney’s loss, this is just another piece of evidence that shows that he might not do as well under the scrutiny of a national campaign as his admirers think. Christie’s temperament is perfect for the maelstrom of New Jersey politics, but might not play as well on the national stage.

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GOP Jewish Gains Illustrate Their Problem

The Republican Jewish Coalition released the exit polls they took yesterday and declared victory in the presidential contest. President Obama won re-election, but his share of the Jewish vote in the RJC poll was 68 percent–down from the 78 percent that he received in 2008. Mitt Romney received approximately 32 percent of Jewish ballots, a figure that is about 10 percent more than the paltry 22 percent won by John McCain. Democrats may dispute these figures, but they roughly conform to the results obtained in the national exit poll taken by CNN. Two questions arise out of a careful look at these numbers.

First, what was the primary cause of this rise in the GOP vote? Second, and perhaps even more important, is whether Republicans really ought to be celebrating this result as much as the RJC says they should. The obvious answer to the first question is President Obama’s fractious relationship with the state of Israel. The answer to the second is more complicated. Though Republicans are right to see these numbers as evidence of the incremental progress they’ve made since the party bottomed out among Jews in 1992, they should also be asking themselves if they will ever again have an opportunity to do as well as they did this year.

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The Republican Jewish Coalition released the exit polls they took yesterday and declared victory in the presidential contest. President Obama won re-election, but his share of the Jewish vote in the RJC poll was 68 percent–down from the 78 percent that he received in 2008. Mitt Romney received approximately 32 percent of Jewish ballots, a figure that is about 10 percent more than the paltry 22 percent won by John McCain. Democrats may dispute these figures, but they roughly conform to the results obtained in the national exit poll taken by CNN. Two questions arise out of a careful look at these numbers.

First, what was the primary cause of this rise in the GOP vote? Second, and perhaps even more important, is whether Republicans really ought to be celebrating this result as much as the RJC says they should. The obvious answer to the first question is President Obama’s fractious relationship with the state of Israel. The answer to the second is more complicated. Though Republicans are right to see these numbers as evidence of the incremental progress they’ve made since the party bottomed out among Jews in 1992, they should also be asking themselves if they will ever again have an opportunity to do as well as they did this year.

As for the cause of a nearly 20-percent swing in the Jewish vote since 2008, it is difficult to argue that Israel was not a key factor in explaining the change in the last four years. Though liberals will point out that President Obama lost ground with virtually all demographic groups except for African-Americans, Hispanics and young voters, the gap between the nearly 10 points he lost among Jews and what may turn out to be about a three-percent drop in his overall vote total in 2008 requires an explanation. Since it is highly unlikely that a generally liberal Jewish community was more perturbed by the economy, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that four years of battle between the president and the government of Israel took a toll on Obama’s share of the Jewish vote.

The five- to six-percentage point difference between his overall decline and the ground he lost among Jews is easily understood as the product of the fights Obama picked and the questions his conduct raised among pro-Israel voters about his trustworthiness. While a small percentage of the Jewish vote, it is still a sign that a significant number of Jewish Democrats cared deeply about the issue. Though few Jews consider Israel the No. 1 issue at stake yesterday, the RJC poll reported that 76.5 percent of the respondents consider Israel to be either “very important” (30.2 percent) or “fairly important” (46.3 percent). And that seemed to be reflected in the poll in which 22.8 percent said Obama was “pro-Palestinian” and 17.4 said he was just neutral.

By posting a 50-percent gain over what McCain received, the RJC can claim a moral victory of sorts. It can also credibly assert that with its ad campaigns aimed at Jewish voters, it is building its brand and increasing market share in the community. The 31-32 percent Romney got also marks the highest total for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988. That’s nothing to sneeze at and should, at least in theory, scare Democrats into thinking that they are on the wrong end of a trend that could ultimately start to make even more serious inroads into their longtime near-monopoly of the Jewish vote, especially when you consider that Republicans continue to do best among Orthodox Jews, the fastest growing sector of the community.

Those who will argue that the RJC didn’t get much in return for the prodigious effort they made with Jewish voters should take into consideration that the Democrats took this threat seriously. Not only did they campaign hard to defend Obama’s record on Israel in the last year, with extravagant and inaccurate praise of him as the Jewish state’s best friend to ever sit in the White House, the president noticeably adjusted his policies as part of an election-year Jewish charm offensive. Without it, it’s probably the case that Democratic losses would have been much greater.

But the GOP shouldn’t be celebrating too loudly.

The problem with looking at the 2012 results as part of an upward trend for Republicans is that this election was a unique opportunity to win Jewish votes that may not be replicated again for many years.

For more than thirty years, Jewish Republicans have looked to the 1980 election, in which Ronald Reagan set the modern record for the GOP share of the Jewish vote with 39 percent. In that period, they have searched for another Reagan who could do as well. They have found that even when their nominee was considered an even more ardent friend of Israel than the Gipper — as George W. Bush was when he ran for re-election in 2004 — they still fell far short of their goal.

Their problem was that they were looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Instead of another Reagan, what they needed was someone to play the role of Jimmy Carter, the president whose antagonism to Israel set in motion the 1980 exodus of Jewish voters to the GOP. That’s exactly what they got in Obama.

If, as RJC leaders Matt Brooks and Ari Fleischer insisted on a teleconference with the press about the poll today, it was unfair to expect a party to do better than the 10 percent gains they got yesterday, it must still be observed that they are highly unlikely to be presented with as inviting a target four years from now. Indeed, if a Republican couldn’t do better than 32 percent with Obama as an opponent, it’s likely they will lose ground rather than gain more if they are presented with a Democrat who is demonstrably more sympathetic to Israel than the president.

While the growth of the Orthodox community gives the RJC some hope, their encouraging 2012 results are really just more proof of their intractable problem: convincing an overwhelmingly liberal group to vote for Republicans.

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