Mitt Romney’s top strategist has some bad advice for Hillary Clinton

To an uncomfortable degree this campaign cycle, Republicans have displayed a willingness to play around in the Democratic Primary. It started a few months ago, when The New York Times reported that conservative organizations were tweeting out attacks on Hillary Clinton from the left in an attempt to chip away her support among liberals. The tweets were all true, but one couldn’t help but think they were a bit sleazy. Intentions matter in argument, and we generally expect people to support the ideological implications of the claims they make.

Which is why it was one part odd and one part frustrating this morning to see that Stuart Stevens has penned an op-ed in the Daily Beast advising Hillary Clinton as to what she needs to do in order to salvage her primary campaign. If you don’t remember, Stevens was the stop strategist for Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 presidential campaign — a detail the Daily Beast did not disclose in the article.

Once again, almost all of the information in Stevens’s article is correct: Bernie Sanders has outpaced Barack Obama in small-dollar donors at this point in the cycle. He is somewhere between striking distance and breakeven with Clinton in New Hampshire. For her part, Hillary Clinton has real holes in her supposedly “liberal” record that have disqualified her in the minds of many on the left — from her support for DOMA and mass incarceration to her overseeing of President Obama’s drone program as Secretary of State. Her support is in large part derived from her perceived electability, and if she loses Iowa or New Hampshire to Sanders she will take a hit in national polling that will undermine that case.

There’s nothing wrong with Stevens making these claims. They aren’t wrong. But he takes them in a direction that can only be described as an argument in bad faith.

As Stevens argues, if Hillary loses Iowa or New Hampshire, the result will be chaos:

And then what happens? Will the Democratic Party rally around her?

Perhaps. But more likely Party voices, with great and solemn regret (masking their deep panic), will begin to say that Hillary had her chance, she fought a good fight, but we can’t lose the White House.

Who would get in? I still think Elizabeth Warren could be drawn in under this scenario. It’s very different to get into a race to challenge the inevitable Hillary Clinton versus getting into a race to save the Party from a wounded Hillary Clinton. John Kerry could get in. Who knows? Perhaps Martin O’Malley does emerge as the viable alternative.

Not only is this completely unsupported — as Nate Silver pointed out yesterday, Hillary could very easily lose Iowa and New Hampshire and go on to win everywhere else — it also deliberately ignores the Democrats’ next-strongest would-be candidate not named Clinton or Sanders: Joe Biden.

Stuart Stevens, screenshot via YouTube

Stuart Stevens, screenshot via YouTube

This omission is deliberate on the part of Stevens because he doesn’t consider any of the candidates he mentions viable general election candidates. He wants to set up a scenario in which Democrats really, really need Clinton to win. We don’t. As I wrote earlier this week, Biden is safely to Clinton’s left while being able to make a similar case as to his electability in a general election. And he’s leaning toward throwing his hat in the ring, regardless as to whether (or perhaps in case) Clinton implodes.

Stevens then goes on to argue that the way Clinton wins Iowa and New Hampshire — since, remember, she has to win Iowa and New Hampshire or else the Democratic Party as a whole is toast in 2016 — is to stop tacking to the left and double down on her conservative record. She doesn’t do herself any favors by admitting that Sanders has a point and moving in his direction — you’re never going to out-liberal a self-described socialist — so she might as well double down in the other direction and make the contrast as clear as possible:

But to beat Sanders, Clinton has to stop trying to be Sanders-lite and get about the business of explaining why he’s wrong and she’s right. That’s how every race is won or lost. She has to lay out the case that Sanders has bad ideas—and most of his are—that will kill jobs and hurt people. She has to run as Hillary Clinton, not some new creation that a bunch of thirty-something operatives put together as a poli-sci project.

Bear in mind that this is a man who won a Republican primary with exactly the opposite strategy. Under Stevens’s guidance, Mitt Romney ran as hard to the right as he possibly could, even though his past record didn’t support his claims of being a true believer. Imagine if Mitt Romney had told the Republican electorate in 2012 that self-deportation was a bad idea that would “kill jobs and hurt people.” He would have scored points on the left for standing up to his base and speaking some truth, and Rick Santorum could have been the nominee.

Going beyond Stevens’s willful omission of his own successful strategies, he evinces a clear lack of understanding of both the Democratic base and of Democratic campaigns, which makes sense since he is part of neither. For starters, he assumes that Sanders’s ideas are somehow out of the mainstream. They aren’t. Mitt Romney’s campaign platform in 2012 — along with a sizable chunk of the current Republican field — was more conservative than Sanders’s is liberal.

Second, Stevens reminds the reader of his (and Republicans’ general) contempt for field organizing, telling the reader that “Thinking that little tricks like getting an ‘organizer’ to introduce the candidate at a rally will change an image built over four decades in politics is like McDonalds thinking they can take on Starbucks because they now sell espresso.” Not only do attacks on the details of a campaign rally have very little to do with the fundamentals of an election, I remember this contempt of the word “organizer” all to well from my time as an organizer in Virginia on Obama’s campaign in 2012. Stevens will recall that he made a rather meager investment in field operations in the state, and that we positively demolished him on the ground, winning Virginia by nearly four percentage points more than the final polling average predicted.

So if I’m Robby Mook, sitting in Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters in New York, I’m not paying too much attention to an Republican operative telling me to do the opposite of what won him his last primary campaign. But of course, Robby Mook isn’t Stevens’s target audience. By writing in the predominantly liberal Daily Beast, and by not disclosing the most prominent line on his resume, Stevens is trying to play to the ideological heartstrings of the Democratic base, masking himself as a concerned citizen.

To the extent that he’s right, it’s for the wrong reasons. Don’t be fooled.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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