Why Karl Rove and Stuart Stevens are Plain Wrong
February 20, 2013
I am writing this newsletter in a very direct, no baloney, effort to get across how much trouble we Republicans are in and how real the internal party fight is going to be.
I strongly support RNC Chairman Reince Priebus’ effort to think through the lessons of 2012 and develop a better path for the Republican Party.
However there are going to be some very powerful opponents to any serious rethinking of Republican doctrines and strategies.
It is appalling how little some Republican consultants have learned from the 2012 defeat.
It is even more disturbing how arrogant their plans for the future are.
Of course these consultants have made an amazing amount of money asserting an expertise they clearly don’t have.
They have existed in a system in which the candidate was supposed to focus on raising money and the smart consultant would design the strategy, spend the money and do the thinking.
This is a terrible system.
Watch the movie “Lincoln.” This was a politician who thought long and deeply.
Read Craig Shirley’s histories of the 1976 and 1980 campaigns (or watch the documentary Callista and I made, “Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny”). Reagan knew what he believed, why he was running, and what he wanted to accomplish.
Republicans need to drop the consultant-centric model and go back to a system in which candidates have to think and consultants are adviser and implementers but understand that the elected official is the one who has to represent the voters and make the key decisions.
I feel compelled to write this because of Karl Rove’s recent assertions and my very unsettling round table with Stuart Stevens on ABC’s This Week this past Sunday.
I am unalterably opposed to a bunch of billionaires financing a boss to pick candidates in 50 states. This is the opposite of the Republican tradition of freedom and grassroots small town conservatism.
No one person is smart enough nor do they have the moral right to buy nominations across the country.
That is the system of Tammany Hall and the Chicago machine. It should be repugnant to every conservative and every Republican.
There is a second practical thing wrong with Rove’s proposal.
He was simply wrong last year. He was wrong about the Presidential race (watch a video of his blow up on Fox election night about Fox News calling Ohio for President Obama). He was also wrong about Senate races.
While Rove would like to argue his “national nomination machine” will protect Republicans from candidates like those who failed in Missouri and Indiana, that isn’t the bigger story.
Republicans lost winnable senate races in Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Florida. So in seven of the nine losing races, the Rove model has no candidate-based explanation for failure. Our problems are deeper and more complex than candidates.
Handing millions to Washington based consultants to destroy the candidates they dislike and nominate the candidates they do like is an invitation to cronyism, favoritism and corruption.
Stuart Stevens represents a very different problem. Based on our time together on This Week on ABC last Sunday, it seems he is indifferent to the facts and has no sense of responsibility for a presidential campaign that he dominated.
Jonathan Karl did a great job drawing out some amazing opinions.
On the disastrous Romney collapse among Latino voters (it was worse, by the way, with Asian Americans), Stuart responded as though the campaign were irrelevant. Here’s the transcript:
“STEVENS: Let me say something, Republican Party had a problem with Hispanic voters before this primary. I don’t think it got better during the primary certainly. And I think that –
“KARL: I mean, it got worse.
“STEVENS: That’s regrettable. But if you look at the numbers, it didn’t get significantly worse.”
That analysis is simply false.
The Romney campaign decision to savage first Governor Perry and then me on immigration destroyed any chance to build a Latino-Asian appeal.
The Romney formula of self-deportation (which must have seemed clever when invented) led to a collapse of acceptability.
The most powerful Obama ad in Spanish language media was Romney talking about self deportation.
The fact that Stevens can’t acknowledge any of this tells you how hard it will be for some in the consultant class to learn anything about winning in the 21st century.
Stevens did underscore the Republican challenge in attracting Latinos when he said:
“The greatest appeal that the Obama campaign had for Hispanic voters turned out to be ObamaCare. And they ran a tremendous amount of their advertising appealing to Hispanic voters. It was the only place in their advertising where they talked about ObamaCare, was into…the Hispanic community, because an extraordinary percentage of Hispanic voters are uninsured. And that was smart politics. They did it well. The party was also known as the party that was against ObamaCare and that hurt us. There’s not one solution here for the problems that Republicans have with Hispanic voters “
His observation is correct but he fails to draw the right conclusion.
Latinos worry about getting health insurance and health care. A Republican candidate who had a better health idea could have had great appeal. A Republican candidate who was merely anti-Obamacare (and therefore seen as anti-healthcare) would lose that contest. But wasn’t it Stevens’ job as chief consultant to design that before the campaign, not to explain its failure afterwards?
The depth of Republican obsolescence on communications technology was highlighted in this comment:
“STEVENS: Really made — if I had tweeted in this campaign this whole discussion we’ve been having about the second amendment would probably be replaced one about the first amendment and whether it should apply to tweeting.”
Cute but insulting. Republicans will not understand why we are losing younger Americans so badly until we realize how many of our consultants don’t have a clue and don’t intend to change.
Finally, Stevens said something profound but I don’t think he understood how profound it was:
“Listen, I don’t think — it would be a great mistake if we felt that technology in itself is going to save the Republican Party. Technology is something to a large degree you can go out and purchase and if we think there’s an off the shelf solution that you can go out and purchase for the Republican Party it’s wrong.
“You know, we’ve had a lot of chance now since the campaign to spend time with the Obama folks and sometimes they had better technology, some cases we have better technology. We don’t have 140 character problem in the Republican Party. We have a larger problem that we have to look at and be patient about it. And trying to think that there’s one solution like this, I just don’t think…”
I went on to agree with him but I don’t think he understood my agreement. In effect I was repudiating the entire structure, budget and culture of the campaign he dominated:
“GINGRICH: I think the way Stuart just said it is exactly right. The technology problem is a culture problem. I mean the Democrats had 54 data analysts and were hiring Ph.Ds in advanced math because they were using the most advanced decision processes in the country. They were bringing in behavioral scientists. They were trying to figure out how you talk to 311 million people and do so in a way that you can survive 8 percent unemployment and get re-elected and it worked.
“Now, I think it’s actually — he’s right in a sense it’s a cultural problem. None of our consultants would have imagined hiring 54 people in the decision area, none of them would have imagined having 24 people [who] did nothing full time except e-mails and then blind tested the best e-mails to see which ones worked. I mean, this — they are a Super Bowl team that we ought to respect deeply. And we are currently a midlevel college team floundering around and I agree. It’s not just — you can’t just go out and buy this, this is a fundamental rethinking of how you relate to the American people.”
As Reagan biographer Craig Shirley told me, “Commercial radio was a new technology in the early 1930′s and Reagan adapted to it. Talking movies were a new technology in the late 30′s and Reagan adapted to it. Network television was a new technology in the early 1950′s and Reagan adapted to it. If Reagan were alive today, he’d be tweeting.”
Our “Lessons to be Learned” project at Gingrich Productions will begin releasing reports on the scale of change we need in the next few weeks.
We will continue to report throughout the spring and summer.
By this fall we will have online courses on 21st century self government and politics.
The debate over Rove-Stevens versus the new 21st century model may be the most important intra-Republican debate since the emergence of Reagan and Kemp to challenge the old order in the 1970s.
Also, this Friday at 2pm I will teach a live online course from Mount Vernon on George Washington, in honor of his 281st birthday. You can register here to watch.