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On Romney and Ryan, strategy and tactics – piece for TIME magazine

Posted on 24 August 2012 | 3:08pm

Following my blog on Mitt Romney appointing Paul Ryan as his running mate, TIME magazine asked me to write a piece for their international edition. Here it is.

To win a campaign, you have to make the weather. It is one of my golden rules. But whereas the real weather is measurable to the last degree of heat or the last drop of rainfall, the political weather is harder to gauge. Polls can help, but ultimately, it is all about a candidate’s judgment calls.

Right now, Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney is making the weather with the choice of the young Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate. Ryan’s back story, including the discovery of his father’s body, working shifts at McDonalds and sticking to a fitness regime that helps him keep his alleged six pack, has quickly entered national and, in political circles at least, global consciousness. His past policy statements and voting records are now being subjected to intense scrutiny, and a picture is emerging of a bright, ambitious, conservative politician positioned somewhat to the right of the man who would be his boss in the White House.

But Republicans ought to have concerns about their new young pin-up, even as Democrats may be worrying that Ryan, 42, has injected much-needed energy into Romney’s thus far rather staid and vague campaign. The weather Romney is now making stems from what seems like a bold decision to pick as running mate someone with hardline views on abortion, guns and government spending. In other words, the things designed to appeal to the Republican base.

Other world leaders follow U.S. presidential elections more closely than any but their own, because the winner becomes an important player in their lives and politics too. So far, Romney’s main impact on London has been to upset the U.K. government with some ill-chosen words on preparations for the London Olympics. Until then, his profile in Europe was relatively low. Policy wonks in Europe saw a Republican trying to move closer to the center, and vie with Obama in a battle of policy moderation. Ryan’s appointment has caused foreign governments to analyze whether a Romney Administration might be more of a change than thus far thought.

The base matters in politics, but it does not follow that you should automatically listen to it. Romney’s predecessor in the battle against Barack Obama, Senator John McCain, listened to his base in choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate. I said at the time that it was “tactically brilliant, strategically disastrous.” Here we come to another golden rule of campaigning—strategy is more important than tactics. Indeed tactics without strategy almost always end in disaster. Palin electrified the base, excited the media, and for a while discomfited the Democrats, much as Ryan is doing now. But McCain’s strategy was rooted in the notion of his own experience and, more  subtly, distancing himself from George W. Bush. His appointment of the unpredictable, right-wing Palin fired a double barreled shotgun through both planks of his then even-keeled campaign.

Ryan is a more substantial figure, with a more thought-through set of policy positions, than Palin. It is nonetheless too early to rule out the possibility that in seeking to excite his base, Romney has alienated voters whose support he needs to win. Here is the most golden of all golden rules for a challenger in a campaign—you cannot succeed without winning the support of at least some who voted for the other side last time round. New Labour’s electoral success in Britain, like Bill Clinton’s in the U.S., was built around the understanding that parties that lose elections have to reach out to voters who rejected them in the past. Does Paul Ryan make it more likely that a disenchanted Obama  voter will vote for Romney? I doubt it.

Ryan has injected genuinely conservative domestic positions into the center of the debate, giving Republicans something to defend and Democrats something to attack. But the minute Romney looks unhappy defending some of those positions—the TV debates will be important on this—you will know that he has confused strategy with tactics, and regrets it. That’s the risk in handing over weather-making duties to a running mate. 

We have plenty of time to find out whether Romney’s appointment of Ryan ultimately helps him or Obama most. U.S. presidential campaigns are the toughest of them all, and as Clinton once told me, in a conversation I recorded in my diary at the time, election campaigns are the one form of activity designed to make us all look like our passport photo.

— Campbell was Tony Blair’s spokesman and strategist for Blair’s three U.K. election wins. He recently published the fourth volume of his diaries, Burden of Power

  • Anonymous

    Well hello – he’s alive! Try telling us all what and where you are sometime – hammering away on your times article, tweet suggested, the spit! Times. is that true?
    Just post something along the lines of, today I have been eating biscuits this week, as here,
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-z5T8meC84
    And may I say, with this article, what a load of Trump on the republicans. We all know in Blighty what they are and what they are like. I wouldn’t touch them with yours.
    Sorry for being so blunt, Nixon fascinators.

  • Excellent piece. Makes me wonder though how people in high political positions, who one assumes must have some nous, so often make the same mistake of letting short-term win over the long-term. Maybe it’s a mistake all of us in those positions are capable of making. Any ideas?

  • redrugbyfan

    Let’s be honest, they are absolutely bonkers. The Republican right think educated people are an anathma and if anyone is well educated then they may as well grow horns. From the little I know of Ryan, he’s an educated man so it’s an interesting dilemma how the “base” will react to that. They try to hide their education by quoting the old testament and stressing their belief that everything in it is totally correct and the way life should be lived.
    As for educated women – oh my God – they really are the devil incarnate and yet the Republican right women support this view.
    As I said, completely bonkers!

  • Melmo

    ‘…have to reach out to voters who rejected them in the past…’
    Trouble is, you might end up resembling the opposition unless you’re very careful. That’s why we have a blue and a light-blue party today and the country is turning in ever decreasing circles to the right.
    Interesting thought – yellow is the compliment of blue, when mixed it should turn things white but the yellow party is too craven to be yellow.

  • Olli Issakainen

    Conventional wisdom.
    According to the conventional wisdom you only win elections from the centre ground.
    Problem with this view is that no one knows where the centre ground is.
    It is shifting all the time.
    But it is true that in the US winning centrist independent voters is vital amid polarisation.
    But perhaps Mitt Romney thinks that there is more to politics than just strategy and tactics.
    Perhaps he actually believes in something and simply stands for it.
    Perhaps he has an IDEOLOGY!
    “Stounch conservatives” (Tea Party) and “Main Street Republicans” account for 20% of the general public.
    37% are mostly Democratic.
    Independents – at 33% of potential voters – include groups as Libertarians, disaffecteds and postmoderns who are moderates but liberal on social issues.
    Republicanism has an advantage of greater ideological homogenity.
    Paul Ryan appeals to the stounch conservatives.
    He is controversial choice with little appeal outside the core base.
    Mitt Romney is not conservative enough for his own base.
    He picked Paul Ryan against the will of his own pollster.
    Does Paul Ryan as a running-mate make political sense?
    The biggest electoral impact a VP has is in his own state. There a VP can add a few points.
    Wisconsin is a close state. But Ohio matters more.
    A VP nominee can also motivate the base. Mr Ryan is doing just that.
    He could also affect fund-raising.
    Beyond this, vice-presidents have LITTLE IMPACT.
    Sarah Palin was chosen in a hurry with little vetting. She may have correlated with voting intention, but McCain would have lost anyway.
    He took a gamble and lost even more.
    Mitt Romney was never going to choose a moderate. He wants the election to be a battle for a CONSERVATIVE VISION FOR THE US.
    He wants M O R E than just to win an election!
    Ps. Wall Street is now backing Mitt Romney. It has been left to Microsoft, Google and TIME WARNER to finance Obama.

  • Michele

    Surely such a brain dead god-botherer can’t win?

    L Mensch has described herself as Republican Lite this week, I suppose that’s Menschian for ‘will be voting GOP’.

    She’s had stuff to say this week about Akin’s lack of nouse re women’s biology, I’m not aware she’s discussed the crux of that topic – whether abortion is ever acceptable.

  • Anonymous

    Alastair, footie divergence,
    Hammers coming down to the capital city of West Wales,
    with our funny tribes and things.
    Putting tents up at any chance singing and dancing inside,
    Alf Garnett saying, blimey things.
    Seeing another race that he hasn’t discover in life down M4,
    saying, you welsh c**ns, with cultural blings!
    Alf,
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHNRngtkzSs
    “Gawd save her” – “who? Cilla Black?” – “NOOO, the Queen, yer scarse git!” : ) How’s Tony Booth these days Alastair? Heard he’s well away from top form. Brilliant stuff, him and Warren, who lives down in Oz these days, and gawd knows how he is!

  • Nick

    Great piece Alistair !
    Cameron finds himself in a situation similar to Romney .”Get back to Tory roots” is the cry from the Tory backbenchers and Buffoon Boy Boris .Tactically it would be a great move to appease his party and the right wing press .However strategically it would be political suicide .

  • Michele

    Surely Sarah Palin was only selected as a distraction for an already-lost campaign !?

    One would imagine Apple could sponsor Obama with that humongous bizarre fine just imposed on Samsung. They should remember what their entire industry has gained from altruism like Tim Berners-Lee’s rather than acting as if they invented rectangles.

  • reaguns

    I suppose in a way you have to admire Alastair’s honesty here, but unfortunately it illustrates what we all know – politicians will do or say anything to get elected, and Alastair thinks that is right and proper. Tony Blair, David Cameron, and ironically Mitt Romney agree.
    Personally I prefer conviction politicians, whether they be left wingers like Tony Benn or right wingers like Reagan.
    Its a problem with our two party system, and its why I would like to see a stronger lib dems, a stronger ukip, and even a stronger green party. I would like to live in a country where every time labour try to piss off their real supporters to win a few people to the right, they would then lose their real supporters to a proper left wing party, and the same with the tories. Again, I have always thought that Cameron, Blair and the Lib Dems should form one centrist party. According to their theory this party would be invincible and of course none of them care for policy or principle so they should be happy with that. I think this party would finish a very poor third.

  • reaguns

    The problem is that people like to portray all Republicans as bonkers and stupid – but it just doesn’t wash. Ok they had a point with George W Bush – but how much of a point? George W Bush would have been stupider than any of our prime ministers, so they could slag him off (even though they didn’t) but he was smarter than most of our MPs. I recommend watching “Britain’s Trillion Pound Horror Story” to watch about 50 labour and conservative MPs fail to be able to state what our national debt (approx 40% don’t know, approx 40% quoted the deficit instead) – Bush wasn’t that stupid so lets have perspective.
    People said Reagan was stupid, even though Tony Blair has admitted that such an assertion was beyond ridiculous in itself… in fact you might even call it stupid!
    Romney is unprincpled and non-republican, but he is not stupid. Neither is Ryan. Neither was Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan etc etc.
    P.s. you might want to check your spelling and grammar when talking about education… I’ve made this same mistake myself but look at your second sentence.

  • Anonymous

    Country turning blue and light-blue? The litmus test is whether you support the NHS to your death, is what I think who is blue or red. A chemistry analogy for you, that is if you did O level/GCSE chem, test-tubes and all that, bunsen burning.
    And it turns my stomach these private hospital type ads on the telly – BUPA? give me strength, cherry pickers!

  • Anonymous

    reaguns – sorry to break this to you son, but sharp end republican politicians are just puppets on a string to US moneymen, and has been since the end of the nineteenth century
    And only fools they can find to dance for them, and look who you got, Ronald “hehehe come and listen to this Nancy” Reagan, and Nixon and that twit George dubious Bush.
    But George senior had a brain on him, but he was an exception to the usual fools they find. And look at Mitt and his new pal Ryan – two spanners from the same toolbox, cretins they are. Sorry cretins for putting you down, by the way, I apologise. : )

  • Anonymous

    Just answer me one thing then Ehtch – if the moneymen favour the republicans – then how come Obama had 5 times the campaign money McCain had?

  • Anonymous

    Who told you that? Are you accusing me of sending Obama a few thousand bucks through the back door? How dare you!
    : )

  • Anonymous

    GO OBAMA!

  • Michele

    I wouldn’t mind seeing a link about that. Have never heard of it before.

    However, how something is said is always the crux of things.
    eg: while mocking Todd Akin last week re his comment about women’s bodies and their eggs somehow knowing which little squigglers to avoid, L Mensch avoided commenting on the real topic – whether (even) a rape victim should be allowed an abortion. Given her arch Catholicism and anti-abortion statements of the past she should have been asked to clarify (but the American questioner might not know of her recent stand o the topic here).

  • Michele

    Good job you threw so many ‘I think’s in that :-s

  • Anonymous

    You might not know the exact numbers (neither do I) but you are surely aware that Obama had many times over the funding that the Republicans had? And that he quickly abandoned a previously held belief he had about campaign finance?
    Look at Romney, one of the richest men to ever run for president, still won’t be able to touch Obama for campaign finance.
    Lets not forget, big business hates competition, and therefore loves regulation and hates free markets. So its no surprise that money will find its way through to the party who favours more regulation.
    Its less the case here because both parties are in the pocket of big business pretty evenly, there is no Grand Old Party, no Swords Of Liberty here.
    Didn’t know Mensch was a catholic. To be honest I don’t think anyone should ever have paid any attention to her, and certainly shouldn’t do so any more.
    Despite my compliments to one element of the Republican party above, I am not pro-life, rather just like the anti-Republican and hilarious Bill Maher I am pro-death! I believe in abortion, euthanisia and capital punishment! That’s what he said, I would also shoot all drug dealers and paedophiles.

  • Anonymous

    I might have known it was you – give the other man a chance next time Ehtch!

  • Anonymous

    I think Obama will win fairly easily Ehtch. The economy is not in great shape but he inherited a catastrophe. And Romney is a great wet lettuce. Perhaps Paul Ryan or Chris Christie might get the republicans elected in 2016 (though Hillary coud fight them off maybe) but nothing will happen this time around.

  • Anonymous

    Ha, well there is plenty of precedent for my view. Thatcher moved the Tories very far to the right – and they won huge majorities. The liberals tried to be all things to all men – and got mashed. When given 5 even choices in Northern Ireland, the voters moved to the 2 extremes leaving a very weak centre (not quite the same, not left and right.)
    Of course the other example is Tony Blair who moved to the centre and enjoyed initialy huge electoral success (before losing many of his supporters later.)
    One thing that I don’t just “think” is that it would be more democratic if genuine labour and genuine conservatives had actual people to vote for instead of the centrist non entities they currently have.

  • Anonymous

    …furthermore Alastair, watched a good concert from my neck of the woods on S4C telly last night, featuring Nige Owens, the full-time international rugger ref, and part-time comedian, but officially one(!), from this part of our land. Also Gwenda Owen, who I have helped out as a roadie cum electrician cum sound engineer in the past. However, it is not on their version of iplayer yet, Clic, but link to it with pic of Nige the ref, part-time comedian, etc…
    http://www.s4c.co.uk/cerddoriaeth/e_cwm_gwendraeth.shtml

    WHOOPSY! it was on Clic, but expired. Nige the ref was quite funny though, I have to say.

  • Anonymous

    It is a one horse race reaguns, sorry Mitt.
    And I wouldn’t call Mitt a lettuce, I would call him a parsnip, a posh carrot or turnip, stuck in the ground!

  • Anonymous

    by the way reaguns, have you seen this facelessbook spoof by non-republicans from across the otherside of the pond, when he mentions Obama at the end in it?
    Quite a few years old now, but still vewy vewy funny old boy,
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=he1rYR_8T4s
    Seen it before reaguns? If not, where have you been butt!!! : )

  • Michele

    All I could find that seemed in any way non-kneejerky was this:
    http://nwahomepage.com/fulltext?nxd_id=359942
    revealing three times as much (some way from five eh?).

    Isn’t the real context, the atmosphere we should clock about it, the fact that Obama’s funding is coming from a much much much much much (five of ’em) wider base?

    Glad to hear, yet again, yawnnnnn (ooops, sorry, didn’t mean to do that so loudly) your reactionary beliefs about punishment and ….. too bored to continue.

  • Michele

    The Northern Irish were going to vote mostly for the only parties with any history, that’s natural enough and hardly qualifies as ‘evidence’ for your claim about extremism (or for your ‘five even choices’).

    Tony Blair lost huge amounts of support due to misinfo, one being that about Iraq and the other being slob Gilligan rambling off the cuff and half asleep …… a couple more things, R4 having employed such an object in the first place and our own Press being what they are and coining the ‘poodle’ bit of fun that the bandwagon so enjoyed.

    It simply is not possible for a human to ONLY have one set of standards, we all of us, even the Bones and the Yeos and Moggs have to live in and understand the world as it is, this country has hopefully learned lots since it elected Thatcher; hence the wannabe-lad and useless Dave.

  • Michele

    I forgot to include in my last the fact that when TB lost so much support in ’05 he did not do so to the Tories. It went mostly to the LibDems (along with the later welchers or squelchers that swallowed the lies of ’10).

    🙂 Pah re extremism

  • Anonymous

    Oh dear reaguns, was quite proud that Hiliary Rodden-Clinton had good democrate welsh blood in her, but it turns out now that Mitt’s misses is half welsh, oh deary deary me.
    Here is Mrs Romney’s grandmother’s recipe for welsh cakes published in the US’s Washington Post, oh deary deary deary me, much too much salt….
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/reliable-source/post/ann-romney-hands-out-homemade-welsh-cakes/2012/08/28/2fea2402-f145-11e1-adc6-87dfa8eff430_blog.html
    And what beeb(Wales) news made of it,
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-south-east-wales-19407654
    And she said her tatcu (grandad) was a welsh coal miner in Wales before he up sticks in circa 1929! It get’s worse doesn’t it!
    Ach, a song for Ann Romney, that there is no hard feelings, I suppose…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjFHqMxLGjg
    “Yma o hyd” which trans. to the english as “Always will be Here”, but emotionally feeling rather, not geographically, I do think in that song.

  • Anonymous

    Yup, classic case of fingers moving faster than brain – silly me!!!