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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18 Responses to “Mitt Romney’s top strategist has some bad advice for Hillary Clinton”

  1. Aril says:

    I would take it a step further. Even if his motivation had been sincere he has demonstrated real incompetence in the last presidential election. There is no dispute that Obama’s team were electoral heavy weights and Romney’s campaign team were amateurs. How much to you blame the millionaire businessman or his team for their dismal performance and for being out gunned by staticians and computer geeks is up for debate but taking there advice on this topic would seem the utter foolishness.

  2. Bruce Hackel says:

    Don’t under estimate Bernie, lots of people like him and his ideas for a better nation. Especially if you up him up against all the narrow minded candidates on the Repub line up. Hillary need a lesson in humility, and get as far from Wall Street as she can. The populous is really tired on being the work horse of the elite political class. Especially since they do absolutely nothing but look after their own careers.

  3. NYFM says:

    regardless of what Republicans like Stevens think, even Kerry would totally demolish any one of the idiots they are preparing to graduate from the clown car to the general.
    Sanders, Clinton, Biden… doesn’t matter, they’d all win, and handily.

  4. Butch1 says:

    That he is already dismissing Sanders as a viable presidential candidate is interesting as well. It reminds me of what Gandhi said about the British: “First they ignore you . . .” ;-)

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  6. JVCS says:


  7. BeccaM says:

    In general, we refer to this sort of thing from Stevens as ‘concern trolling.’

  8. 2karmanot says:

    Did you means Mens Rea?

  9. Bill_Perdue says:

    Democrat gangster/banksters duke it out with Republican gangster/banksters. Yawn. Scores of millions don’t care. They’re tired of the game and want to change the rules so they stay home on election day to make the point.

    Espousing racist ideas, union busting, more wars and more attacks on the Bill of Rights while pretending not to just won’t cut it anymore. Rebranding didn’t stop Democrats from losing the House and then the Senate and it didn’t slow their bleeding. Nor will it slow the political demise of the Democrats’ brothers and sisters in the Republican party. Now that they have both houses of Congress their vulnerability will increase exponentially.

    In 2012 Obama got 52.% of the actual and a mere 29.% of the eligible vote. Voter turnout dipped from 62.3 percent of eligible citizens voting in 2008 to an estimated 57.5 in 2012. That figure was also below the 60.4 level of the 2004 election… Despite an increase of over eight million citizens in the eligible population, turnout declined from 131 million voters in 2008 to an estimated 126 million voters in 2012 when all ballots are tallied. Some 93 million eligible citizens did not vote.

    People don’t care about these fake contests between like minded right wing parties and that’s a good thing.

  10. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    It’s always pathetic when someone resorts to up voting their own comments.

    Is he speaking the truth? He’s offering advice. Whenever someone gives one advice, one must decide if the advice is good or bad. That’s different from a truth or an untruth. There’s always a motivation behind advice. One would be a fool to accept advice without considering motivation.

  11. Jon Green says:

    James Carville wouldn’t have written this. As I wrote above, his argument is as bad as his intentions.

  12. JVCS says:

    If James Carvilie wrote this you would not have a problem but because Scott Stevens did you do? You see nothing wrong with that?

  13. Jon Green says:

    Because at the end of the day, Stevens doesn’t want Hillary to win. He’s giving her “advice” in bad faith. The issue isn’t that the facts he brings to the table aren’t true; the issue is how he uses them.

  14. JVCS says:

    My point is why should motivation matter if one is speaking the truth?

  15. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    I’m more than just a little concerned with your reading comprehension. There was no question with the validity of what he wrote. The concern was with the motivation behind him writing it.

    Dividing things between Republicans and Democrats is an over simplification. While I am definitely not a Republican, I wouldn’t vote for Hillary if someone held a gun to my head.

  16. Indigo says:

    I’m puzzled by The Daily Beat’s failure to disclose Stevens’ back story. Having said that, I don’t know why I should continue to associate liberal or progressive thought with The Daily Beast.

  17. JVCS says:

    Let me see if I understand…. what Stevens espoused is correct and valid but because he is a Republican it should be ignored. Typical Democratic thinking. I long for the days when the truth was the truth and the truth mattered no matter if you were a Democrat or a Republican. This must be why Democrats are so willing to accept all the lies and the baggage Clinton has, because she is a Democrat and that makes it all copacetic.

  18. FLL says:

    The proof of someone’s motives is the target audience, which in this case was The Daily Beast, a news website with a liberal base. You can reasonably conclude that Stuart Stevens is trying to give bad, self-destructive advice to liberals, which is, after all, what Republican trolls do. But I think articles by Mr. Stevens are rare on The Daily Beast, so I’d like to make one distinction between Mr. Stevens and others who do the same thing, but on a much more frequent basis. The first (or maybe second or third) time, it’s trolling. The 10,000th time, it’s spam.

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