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No single mistake cost Mitt Romney the presidency. Failing campaigns are something like aircraft disasters. Multiple systems have to give way, typically in a cascade, to bring a modern jet aircraft down. Working as a speechwriter for Governor Romney for nearly two years, I had an intimate view of the cockpit for much of the flight, and an equally intimate view of the systems that failed. Why did Mitt Romney, a man in possession of a formidable intelligence, sterling character, a long record of accomplishments in both business and politics, and Hollywood good looks, fail to unseat a highly vulnerable president?
A code of silence has prevailed in the Romney camp about the shortcomings of the campaign. And it continues to prevail to this day. It exists for reasons of self-protection. It exists to evade responsibility for an outcome that was by no means preordained. So that we can learn vital lessons for the future, I am intent on breaking it.
In the immediate aftermath of defeat, Mitt Romney suggested that President Obama bought the election by means of strategic gift-giving: “The Obama campaign,” he told a group of his funders during a widely publicized postelection conference call, “was following the old playbook of giving a lot of stuff to groups that they hoped they could get to vote for them and be motivated to go out to the polls.” In particular, explained Romney, they targeted African-Americans, Hispanics, and young people: “In each case they were very generous in what they gave to those groups.”1
That explanation, of course, is itself an inadvertent clue to one important factor in Romney’s defeat. It was an echo of his earlier notorious remarks, covertly videotaped at a fund-raiser, in which he explained that 47 percent of the American people “will vote for the president no matter what.” There are 47 percent, he continued, “who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it . . . . My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”2 It was these comments and the uproar they ignited that might have sounded the death knell for Romney’s candidacy. Without question, the Republican candidate made some serious mistakes. But it was not pilot error alone that brought down the craft.
Republican operatives in and around the Romney campaign have pointed to a variety of other explanations for their candidate’s defeat, ranging from the Obama campaign’s unanticipated success in mobilizing minority voters to the sheer bad luck of two hurricanes, the first knocking Romney off stride at a crucial moment (the Republican convention) and the second casting a favorable spotlight on Barack Obama at an even more crucial moment (the final week of the campaign).
Those were certainly contributing factors, as was the financial and political damage done to the Romney campaign from the protracted Republican primary contest with its parade of debates. Yet like Mitt Romney’s flaws, they are far from the whole story. Every presidential candidate in our history has been flawed, each in his own way. A well-functioning campaign finds ways to overcome those flaws and to protect the candidate from himself.
But a curious aspect of the story here is that a man celebrated for his management prowess delegated an immense amount of decision-making power to individuals who failed to carry out successfully that and other basic functions. Though I continue to feel affection for Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, and though I treasure the friendships I developed with many of the talented people who worked on Romney’s staff, I have decided to subordinate discretion and friendship—undoubtedly, in some cases, to sacrifice friendship—to provide an account of what happened that is as accurate and incisive as I can make it.
The stakes for gaining a full understanding of what went wrong are high. For all of us as citizens, at issue is nothing less than our obligation to comprehend the meaning of our own past and what it portends for the future. The mechanics of elections and campaigns are today the focus of intense public scrutiny, with issues of money, access, and influence the subject of controversy and the object of a growing body of regulations and laws. Large questions loom about the quality (and sometimes the lack thereof) of the men and women who rise to the fore and choose to become presidential candidates. The more we know about how things worked in this last cycle, the better off we all will be as we seek to perfect our highly imperfect electoral institutions.
For the Republican Party the stakes are nothing less than avoiding yet another defeat in 2016. The party has lost the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections. The Republican National Committee (RNC) has been laboring to understand what has gone wrong. Indeed, it has published a 100-page “autopsy” of the Romney campaign under the positive-sounding title of the “Growth & Opportunity Project.”3 Based on interviews with 2,600 Republicans of varying ideological stripes, the study examines problems with “messaging,” fund-raising, coalition-building, and sundry other aspects of the campaign. It concludes that the party has been “increasingly marginalizing itself” and that the time has arrived for it to “smartly change course.”
But smartly change course in what direction? If the real troubles aboard Flight Romney are not disclosed, interviews with 2,600 Republicans or, for that matter, with 260,000 Republicans will not help the Republican Party find its way. We need an inquest that brings us inside the cockpit and tells us what is recorded on the black box.
One place to begin such an inquest is a telling moment late in the campaign: September 11, 2012. The Romney campaign managed to botch the anniversary of one of the most tragic days in our nation’s history. Although Romney had emphatically declared that September 11 was not a time for partisanship, the campaign nevertheless ended up launching a naked partisan attack on President Obama on a day of national remembrance, just as a serious national security crisis was unfolding. The cost to Romney’s standing as a potential commander in chief proved to be high.
In Cairo that day, demonstrators had surrounded the American embassy and breached its walls. In Libya, an al Qaeda affiliate launched a terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, killing four Americans, including our ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. As news was filtering in of violent turmoil in the Middle East, the Romney campaign issued a statement in which the candidate blasted the Obama administration for having “sympathize[d]” with those who were attacking our embassies.4 As we shall see, this charge turned out to be groundless.
As we shall also see, the political blowback against Romney came in gale force. September 11, 2012 turned out to be a very bad day for the Romney campaign, hence the title of this book. The campaign’s reaction to Benghazi was by no means the decisive factor leading to Romney’s defeat in November. By early autumn, other problems in his quest for the presidency had grown salient. But a deep dive into how Romney came to make such a serious misstep on that notable anniversary is key to any inquiry into the broader dysfunctions of the campaign. A remarkable political mishap occurred on September 11, one whose antecedents and ramifications are only dimly understood by the press let alone by the broader public. Though Romney’s focus throughout the campaign was the economy, it was in the foreign policy sphere where he encountered some of the most dangerous crosswinds of the race. From the early days of the race, this is where the warning lights were insistently flashing red.
As the former governor of a small and very liberal state, Romney faced the special challenge of trying to establish credibility as a potential commander in chief while running against a sitting commander in chief. This was not an unexpected problem. A similar challenge had cropped up four years earlier in Romney’s first bid for the presidency. Then he faced the nearly insuperable task of establishing sufficiently strong foreign policy credentials to run for the Republican nomination against the national war hero John McCain.