The Joker

At TNR Noam Scheiber has penned a profile of Romney’s “guy,” chief strategist Stuart Stevens, who when he’s not involved in political campaigns has written travel books and TV screenplays, and participated in cross-country skiing marathons. Not knowing much about the man, I fished in and read it twice.

On one level, Stevens comes across as the rare Republican operative that a progressive might like: literate, funny (or so Scheiber says), and not taking himself or even politics all that seriously. He dislikes life in Washington, as most sane non-natives do, and doesn’t much “get” the right-wing ideology of his party.

But on another level, his very insouciance seems sinister. He wrote a memoir of his experiences in Bush’s 2000 campaign that apparently treats the whole Florida saga like a series of fraternity pranks. And then there’s this episode:

Last fall, Romney released a commercial with video of Obama announcing that, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” The ad, which Stevens conceived, was incredibly dishonest—the footage was from a 2008 campaign appearance in which Obama had quoted a McCain adviser. But Stevens convinced Romney that their ethical obligations would be fulfilled by distributing a press release explaining the origin of the quote.

It didn’t work. The ad sent both the White House and the campaign press into hysterics. For over a week, pundits clucked about the spot’s egregiousness. John King, CNN’s pathologically neutral correspondent, called it “reprehensible.” NBC’s Brian Williams featured it as a case study in “how dirty this campaign will be.” Stevens could hardly believe the blowback—it was an ad, after all, a mere act of propaganda. What was the big deal?

This amorality about politics helps explain why Stevens–who is described as remarkably in synch with the ostensibly very different Mitt Romney–treated the ideological concessions his candidate had to make to secure the GOP nomination as sort of the cost of doing business. Cynicism is hardly a rare trait among campaign consultants, but when yoked to a candidate like Romney who has never taken a single policy position he would not cheerfully abandon the moment it inconvenienced him, Stevens is hardly a reassuring figure to anyone at any spot on the ideological spectrum who takes governing and its consequences seriously. Thus:

If the normal trajectory for a candidate is to edge toward his base during the primary and the center during the general election, Romney has accomplished something closer to the opposite.

And it could easily get worse as the general election approaches, or even afterward (if Romney wins), as conservatives who don’t trust Romney or his team as far as they can throw them keep the pressure on to redeem his promises quickly and thoroughly.

Besides, it’s one thing if a candidate and his “guy” make ideological commitments they secretly dislike in order to navigate the twisted road to the White House. It’s another thing altogether if they just don’t give a damn, and are happy to offload policy decisions to the people who actually care about them, so long as they get the big jobs and a page in the history books.

I feel about Stevens sort of like I feel about Mitt’s vice presidential choice: if America is about to lurch off into a fateful right-wing direction, I’d sort of like the people leading it to tell me what they want to do and why, and not hide behind inanities, or worse yet, treat the country’s future as a trifle or a plot line in their personal stories. And if Mitt Romney wants to be the hero of that story, I’m afraid Stuart Stevens will be perfectly happy to write it up and then write if off as another cool experience.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.