If ‘personnel is policy,’ Mitt Romney has serious problems

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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I’ve always believed you can tell a lot about a leader based on the people they surround themselves with. No executive can do everything, and so they hire people to help implement policies. In politics, staffers have a tremendous amount of power. I’ve often found it is much better to befriend a staffer than a principal. Staffers are often the gatekeepers and the “deciders.” They whisper in their superior’s ears, and often have significant influence.

That’s why I have been greatly concerned about the comments made by high-ranking Romney staffers. As the Good Book says, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” — and so my worry is that Team Romney is actually betraying their true feelings about “Etch-a-Sketching” and — now — RomneyCare.

Following is some terrific advice that conservative leader Morton Blackwell gave to a “just-elected conservative friend.” But I think the advice applies to all politicians — and especially Romney:

The most important decisions you will make right now are personnel decisions. Personnel is policy. If you pick staff who genuinely share your policy priorities, you’re likely to achieve much of your agenda in office. If not, you probably won’t be able to do very many of the important things you now hope to do.

The people you hire necessarily must make decisions. If you could make all decisions for them, you would not need to hire them. As my grandmother often said, “Why keep a dog if you’re going to bark yourself?”

He went on to note the importance of considering philosophy in hiring decisions:

Conservatives make a great mistake if they think:

I’m as conservative as one can be and still be responsible. Anyone to the right of me is to that extent irresponsible. So I’ll hire only people who exactly share my philosophy and those who are to the left of me.

If you base your hiring on that thinking, you’ll inevitably be dragged to the left by your staff. You’ll undermine your political base. And you’ll fail to do most of what you now hope to do.

You can’t hire only people who share your exact beliefs. No two people truly agree on everything. You should hire as many people to the right of you as to the left of you.

Governing is campaigning by different means. You should always keep a secure home base. Those you hire in government should be broadly representative of the coalition which elected you. Nothing reassures elements of the coalition which elected you more than to know they have good representation among your staff.

(Emphasis mine.)

Conservatives clearly have reason to worry about Mitt Romney’s staffing decisions. The notion that we have a presidential campaign being run out of Boston has always seemed odd to me. But putting that petty, if symbolic, geographical bias aside, Romney seems to have intentionally promoted staffers who are largely unknown — and in some cases hostile — to the conservative movement.

Ann Coulter says Romney ought to fire spokesperson Andrea Saul, but a better question is: Why did he hire her in the first place? Saul’s previous job was working for Charlie Crist. In that capacity she publicly said this: “Marco Rubio is a wheeling and dealing Miami lobbyist and politician, always trying to scam the system for his personal benefit.”

That’s not change I can believe in. This must be fixed — and not by changing the subject. While picking Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate might symbolically assuage conservative concerns (whereas someone like Sen. Rob Portman might inflame this situation), in the long run, White House staffers might actually be more influential in a Romney administration.

As he chooses a running mate and begins putting a transition team together, Mitt Romney must be made to see that personnel is policy. His hiring decisions should mean even more than his rhetoric.

Matt K. Lewis