Political Animal


August 06, 2012 3:22 PM The Joker

By Ed Kilgore

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 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.


  • c u n d gulag on August 06, 2012 3:38 PM:

    Great piece of writing, Ed!

    And that's the problem with Mitt - you don't really know what he things a believes, because I don't think he really knows what he thinks and believes.
    Except that he thinks and believes he should be President.

    I'd rather have Jim DeMint running.
    At least I know where he stands, and what he believse in. It's reprehensible, but it's easy for people to see, and infer how he's going to govern if he gets to become President.
    That would be a stark choice, but no one can say they're suprised if DeMint takes this country and tries to shape it into a Dominionist Christian Fascist Banana Republic.

    Too many people might think, "Oh, that's just Mitt saying and doing whatever will get him elected. He'll go back to beind middle-ground after he's sworn in, so what's the difference between him and Obama?"

    A man who believes in nothing (but his own superiority), is liable to do ANYTHING!

    And this Stuart Stevens seems like a real work of art - if you consider graffiti on a men's room wall to be art.

    He's typical of many Conservatives - they don't care about the consequences for others, as long as they get what they want.
    Worrying about consequences is for little people, and losers - not amoral Supermen.

  • T2 on August 06, 2012 3:49 PM:

    "a series of fraternity pranks" is basically how the Florida vote count went down - it wasn't sophisticated. It worked because the people in charge of the state and the voting were also the pranksters and the prankee was more afraid of fighting back than turning the nation over to a bunch of fools who managed to do so much damage in eight years that it may take twice that long to dig out of it.
    The GOP has a long list of dirty tricksters like Stephens and they have been fundamental in keeping the GOP in power or at least contending for power. The Democratic Party has no one to compare with the crooks that have worked for Republicans since Nixon's time.
    The reason: for the GOP it is Politics over Policy - winning is all that matters. From what I've seen of Romney winning is all that matters to him, too....what he does when he gets there is probably the last thing on his mind.

  • Josef K on August 06, 2012 3:53 PM:

    if America is about to lurch off into a fateful right-wing direction, Iíd 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 countryís future as a trifle or a plot line in their personal stories. And if Mitt Romney wants to be the hero of that story, Iím afraid Stuart Stevens will be perfectly happy to write it up and then write if off as another cool experience.

    This is one sick puppy. I fear he and his will be in for an ugly shock in the near future.

  • Josef K on August 06, 2012 4:04 PM:

    Incidentially, the choice of title for this post is quite appropro. After all, "the Joker" has been a remorseless and murderous sociopath since his introduction in comics in "Batman" #1 in 1940. One can only hope Stevens' tenure on the public stage is much, much shorter.

  • Mimikatz on August 06, 2012 4:24 PM:

    Treat the country's future like a trifle or a plot line in their personal stories.

    Perfect description of the GOP and their total lack of interest in actually solving real problems (as opposed to preventing Sharia law or Agenda 21). What a bunch of sociopaths.

  • dweb on August 06, 2012 5:32 PM:

    Among my many fears of a Romney presidency is that Mitt is a lot more like Bush Jr. than many people realize. He is amoral. He loves the IDEA of being President, but the nuts and bolts of it all....meh. It is yet another opportunity for the purists of the party to use their President as a convenient front....as Grover says...we just need someone who can sign bills....we'll take care of the rest....and that is what is truly frightening.

    Even Mitt admits, when asked what he would do once he takes office, "Congress will take care of things."

  • Rick B on August 06, 2012 8:46 PM:

    @c u n d gulag 3:38 PM: Concur.

    @Josef K 3:53 PM The trouble with this conservative sick puppy is that when things go wrong they find someone else to blame it on. They never, never, never accept personal responsibility for the failures they cause.

    Show me one conservative who has accepted that they pushed policies that caused the Great Recession of 2008. You will not find one. Nor will you find a Wall Street Banker who accepts responsibility.

    @Mimikatz 4:24 PM: Yep.

    @dweb 5:32 PM: Yep. Romney has been anointed by god to be President. Ask him in an unguarded moment, or ask one of his disciples. He is son of a governor and grandson of a Mormon Apostil. He is a Mormon Bishop and one of the key leaders of his sect. The rules of normal human society do not apply to him. That's why he feels no need to prepare for the job of President like mere mortals have to do. god is giving the job to him and god will lead him to do what god demands be done. That is Romney's substitute for mere mortal morality.

    Is he a sociopath? Yep. He can never be wrong and he has no sympathy for mere mortals.

  • dr. bloor on August 06, 2012 11:34 PM:


    I gather you haven't had occasion to read anything about sociopathy, because your description of Stevens is pretty close to a textbook definition. Socially smooth, utterly without conscience.

  • latts on August 07, 2012 9:46 AM:

    That's why I don't really have many conservative friends... sure, I have some FB acquaintances and relatives and some old pals who married affluent men & adopted their self-satisfied beliefs, but political conservatives just aren't people whose judgment & principles I trust, especially if they're under 70. That worldview-- one in which hierarchies and position are automatically validated, and justified in abuses-- isn't one I can ever esteem, no matter how engaging an individual may be.