Former Romney Adviser Stuart Stevens on Loss, the GOP’s Race Problem, and Why Trump Won’t Win

By
Obama And Romney Square Off In First Presidential Debate In Denver
Stuart Stevens following the presidential debate at the University of Denver on October 3, 2012. Photo: Doug Pensinger/2012 Getty Images

Stuart Stevens is the type of Renaissance man seemingly conjured out of Wes Anderson’s nostalgic mind. In his peripatetic career, Stevens has indulged various pursuits: political consulting, extreme-sports adventuring, and writing books, magazine essays, and screenplays. As the chief architect of Mitt Romney’s campaign, Stevens had a front-row seat to the 2012 presidential race. Last year, in the wake of Romney’s defeat, Stevens, a native of Jackson, Mississippi, retreated home to complete his latest quest: attending every Ole Miss football game with his 95-year-old father. On Tuesday, Knopf releases The Last Season, his book about that experience. As Republicans prepare to gather for the second primary debate on Wednesday, Stevens talked about the race for 2016, why Republicans need to reach out to black voters, and how Obama is really a conservative.

You’ve written books about driving a Land Rover across Africa and retracing Peter Fleming’s classic expedition through remote China. There’s not that kind of adventure in your new book. Why’d you write it?
This one is a lot more personal. As I try to describe in the book, it’s a sense I had after the Romney campaign and with my dad turning 95, and probably something to do with me turning 60, this desire of trying to find that which once gave me great pleasure. I’d lived my life at such a frenetic pace with campaigns and other silly endeavors. This seemed important.

I read the book as exploring the theme of loss. It opens with you as a 10-year-old boy having to leave an Ole Miss game at halftime and ends this past season with you watching a “slow motion nightmare” of Ole Miss’s loss to Mississippi State. Do you see the book being about loss?
I think it’s a meditation on loss. At a certain point, and probably earlier is better, if you’re lucky you realize loss is a constant state that we live in. How one deals with it, and what one takes from it, probably has a lot to do with how happy you are as a person.

It seems like you really don’t like to lose.
I was always very good at denying that loss was important. Part of it was my obsession with politics. If you lost, there was always another chance to win. At least, that was the theory.

Let’s talk about the biggest loss of your political career: Mitt Romney’s last campaign.
I never felt good about the campaign. Very few incumbent presidents lose. I was saddened by it.

In football terms, what was the “47 percent” comment? A fumble, an interception, a safety? Just how damaging was it?
I don’t think it was determinative at all. I think it was more like an interception. A bad moment and you go on.

Donald Trump called the campaign “a disaster.”
Well, I think any campaign that loses is a failure.

Is there a difference between failure and disaster?
I think it would be a meaningless one.

You broke your cardinal rule, which is you’ve always wanted to work for candidates who were going to win anyway.
Yes. Working against an incumbent president is always going to be a long shot. I mainly felt a sense of having let people down. A sense of failure. There’s always a lot of finger-pointing after a campaign — so that’s why I said, “Blame me.”

Did you think of writing a more traditional campaign memoir?
No. I did that with The Big Enchilada about the [2000] Bush campaign. I didn’t want to think about the [Romney] campaign as reliving it. I was interested in understanding the campaign on multiple levels.

I want to switch gears. You write a lot about your own conflict with the South’s racial history. You open the book in 1962 with you as a 10-year-old boy watching Mississippi’s segregationist governor, Ross Barnett, rousing the all-white crowd right before the Ole Miss campus was integrated. You also write about how some of your high-school classmates applauded when they learned Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. Why did you decide to explore the issue of race?
All Southern stories, and certainly all Mississippi stories, are ultimately about race. Maybe it’s true of all American stories. It’s the single most definitive factor in one’s life.

You describe the riot at Ole Miss that erupted when federal marshals escorted James Meredith onto campus as the first student riot of the ’60s and the last battle of the Civil War. Why?
Others have done that as well so I don’t want to make it seem like I stumbled on something new. But look, there were 30,000 troops in Oxford. The confrontation between a state, as embodied by Ross Barnett, and the federal government, as embodied by Robert Kennedy, was the last great confrontation.

But if that was the last battle of the Civil War, how would you describe the current national movement protesting the killing of unarmed black men by police?
Race is still a key in which most of American life is played, and that’s undeniable. And I don’t have any doubt whatsoever that as a white person, odds are I’m treated differently than a black person by police. To the degree you can have a national discussion about it I think is positive.

I couldn’t help but read your book as a critique of the modern Republican Party, especially in the way you write about race with a frankness that’s rare in the mainstream Republican conversation.
Just to put it out there, it’s not in any way. I don’t write as a Republican. It’s not how I see myself in a definitional sense. On a list of 15 qualities it would be much farther down. I can’t speak for the GOP and I have no official role. But in a political-science sense, it’s obvious the GOP has to do better with nonwhite voters if it’s going to succeed in national elections.

How do they do that?
If there were an easy answer, we’d do it. It’s the great challenge and failure of the Republican Party.

You write about how your mom hosted Eugene McCarthy volunteers and kept an Obama bumper sticker on her car. So why did you become a Republican?
When I grew up, the classic Democratic Party in Mississippi was much more of this old, bad-on-race party. If you were growing up, why would you want to join those people unless you wanted to be county clerk in Itawamba County? It was like joining a machine. It’s always more fun to run against a machine. I mean, George Wallace was a Democrat.

But now all those people are Republicans.
Well, the Republican Party has come to dominate the South. It’s a more complicated issue to say any one party has some sort of moral superiority.

The New Republic once wrote that you told your book editor that you planned to vote for Obama in 2008.
No, I didn’t vote for Obama.

It said that you were going to.
I don’t think I said that. I don’t think so. I think, I would fall into the category of people who thought that the idea that America would elect an African-American president was tremendously powerful and positive. To watch Obama emerge and win these primaries was very impressive.

So full transparency, I voted for Obama in ’08. Who did you vote for?
Well, McCain.

What’s your reflection on the Obama presidency?
I think the way to judge it is by the results. It’s very troubling what has happened economically in the country, cause and effect aside. We know it’s been the sharpest rise in poverty. We know that middle-class incomes are stagnant or declining. There are more rich people, less of a middle class, and more poverty. I think President Obama is like many conservatives in that he’s a cause candidate. He’s always been driven by great social causes. He’s not an economically driven politician.

The White House would argue that their agenda has been blocked by House Republicans who were determined never to work with the president.
As president you control two things: what you talk about and how you spend your time. Just look at what he’s focused on. He’s been much less focused on pure economic performance. Much less. In his 2012 acceptance speech he didn’t mention unemployment. I think there’s been a conspiracy of silence as to what is really happening economically in the country, in both parties. It goes to the success that Bernie Sanders is having and also the success Trump is having.

Do you think Obama faced opposition that’s different given the historical nature of his presidency? People on the left who hated George W. Bush and people on the right who hated Bill Clinton never questioned the legitimacy of them holding office.
Sure they did.

You worked for George W. Bush. What are your thoughts on Jeb’s campaign?
You know, it’s impossible to judge any of these campaigns if you’re not inside them. I don’t want to be one of those guys who are in the critiquing business. A lot of this is like people calling up Mad Dog and saying what they would have done instead of Tom Brady. There were so may people in the Republican Party criticizing the Romney campaign.

The title of your book is The Last Season. Could one read that as you’re done with presidential politics?
No, no, no. I still find politics fascinating and I still really like campaigns. I love politics, I still love campaigning. I haven’t lost any enthusiasm or enjoyment for that battle.

Did you think about working for any other candidates?
I’ve had offers.

From who?
I shouldn’t say, they have good people working for them now.

You write in the book that the cruelest lesson in life, and sports, is what if? So what if Donald Trump becomes president?
[Laughs.] He’s not. He’s not! This goes down to, how am going to play in the next Super Bowl? It’s not going to happen. For Donald Trump to win, everything we know about politics has to be wrong. And I don’t think it is. The timing of when it falls apart is always more difficult to know than inevitably that it will.

It’s like that Hemingway quote: “How did you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
Yes. I think there’s a lot of that in politics.

* This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Stuart Stevens on Loss, Racism, and Donald Trump