Yesterday’s flap over the appointment of former U.S. trade representative and World Bank president Bob Zoellick to lead the Mitt Romney “readiness project” (i.e. the transition team) on national security revealed a divergence between the perceptions of conservatives outside the campaign and those slogging through the day-to-day battles. The Zoellick kerfuffle, as I learned in conversations yesterday with about a dozen Republicans, had reverberated inside the campaign and in conservative policy circles.
Zoellick has no preexisting relationship with Mitt Romney, according to those who know both men. Multiple campaign sources confirmed to me that Zoellick specified to the Romney campaign that he does not want a position in the administration should Romney win the election, having recently accepted a job at Harvard University.
Sources in the campaign as well as advisers who have been providing advice on an ad hoc basis tell me that the decision to bring him on was made by the transition chief, former Utah governor Mike Leavitt. Moreover, sources tell me that policy chief Lanhee Chen and foreign policy director Alex Wong were not consulted about the move, nor were other top advisers with Washington foreign policy experience. These advisers would have tipped Leavitt to the problems with Zoellick’s selection and the deep antipathy felt toward Zoellick by scores of foreign policy hawks.
Zoellick, apparently unknown to Leavitt, couldn’t be a worse match for Romney. The former governor of Utah prizes collaboration and teamwork, while legions of those who have worked with Zoellick are candid that he “does not play well with others.” Romney’s tough stance on China and his deeply felt affection for Israel are also at odds with Zoellick’s “multilateral mush,” as one key campaign adviser described his views. (For more on Zoellick’s views on China, see the update in yesterday’s post.)
As for Leavitt, he is personally close to Romney. A Wall Street Journal report earlier this month detailed that Leavitt, who worked with Romney on the 2002 Winter Olympics, is one of a handful of longtime confidantes on whom Romney relies. Leavitt is quoted as saying: “I offer an independent voice when it’s needed. When you have a thoroughbred racehorse, you can put a goat in the stable with them, and it calms them down. I’m the goat.”
Conservatives, however, regard Leavitt with great wariness.
Outside the campaign Leavitt’s selection as transition head set off alarm bells on the right because of his support for the health-care insurance exchanges that are at the heart of Obamacare. That forced the campaign to assure supporters Romney would in fact work for the repeal of Obamacare from the first day of his presidency. From the vantage point of the top circle of Romney’s top campaign advisers, however, Leavitt is a peripheral figure, a Utah friend with establishment connections but rarely, if ever, critical in policy decisions and entirely divorced from nitty-gritty campaign strategy.
Moreover, top Romney advisers who have been running at full speed for months view transition issues as way down the list of concerns, the top ones being the day-to-day onslaught from the Obama team, the VP rollout and convention speech, as well as the development of Romney’s own agenda.
Romney’s senior circle is right, of course, not to put the transition cart before the horse and instead to concentrate on winning the race. What happened this week, however, was a lesson that the campaign dare not be oblivious to deep-seated grievances and sensitivities from conservative foot soldiers.
An impressive VP pick, a robust convention speech, a full-throated conservative agenda and a solid debate performances will, the Romney team hopes, calm frayed nerves inside and outside the campaign.
For now, the campaign is keeping its collective eyes on the real opposition. Romney faces a president whose superPAC is ready to accuse him of murder and a Senate majority leader who is giving Joseph McCarthy a run for his money as the most despicable abuser of the privilege of speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate.