A storm is brewing inside the Romney transition

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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As the Republican convention gets set to kick off Tampa, an internal power struggle is brewing within the Romney campaign. Unlike the general election (which has been described as a clash between Boston and Chicago), this battle symbolically pits Boston versus Salt Lake City. More specifically, some senior Romney aides — and conservative movement leaders (an odd alliance, to be sure) — worry that former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt is attempting a power grab.

The concern is that Leavitt, Romney’s choice to run his transition operation (known internally as the “readiness project”), is working to preemptively populate a future Romney administration with personal loyalists — that he’s building himself a fiefdom to run.

“It’s the Dick Cheney model,” one source harrumphed.

“Leavitt could make his own transition next January into the job of White House chief of staff,” predicted Mike Allen in his Politico “Playbook” earlier this summer. If that happens, his loyalists will likely land plum jobs.

Whereas the presidential campaign has been largely run by a diverse inner circle of pols who are loyal to Romney’s political ambitions, Leavitt’s team consists mostly of men (with the exception of Leavitt’s assistant, there is a shocking absence of senior female leadership within the readiness project) who are Leavitt “retreads,” business leaders, outsiders, and/or LDS members (described by two different sources as the “Mormon mafia.”)

At the heart of the dispute is a fundamental question over whether or not a transition operation is a management exercise or a political operation attempting to structure policy. If “personnel is policy,” then the fact that many of Leavitt’s “whiz kid” technocrats lack conservative convictions is of concern to those who already worry about Romney’s moorings.

Leavitt, for example, has brought in former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, who was ousted from office over his moderate positions. Bennett has publicly said Leavitt “would make a great chief of staff in the White House.” (This emphasis toward a business philosophy of governance fits well with Romney’s recently stated goal of bringing “corporate order to the West Wing” — and, along with that, a lot of private-sector people into the administration.) One source says he’d be more comfortable with a few more “Haley Barbours” involved.

The Mormon network, and the suggestion of favoritism, is rarely discussed publicly — but it is  (quietly) a major bone of contention. “They are tribal and they help each other out,” says one source of the LDS members on the transition team. “There’s nothing wrong with that — but that’s what’s happening here.”

Many on the transition team have little or no political experience (concerns about an “experience gap” have already been expressed regarding Romney’s foreign policy team), and what is more, many are politically inexperienced technocrats who also have the problem of having been associated with Bush-era bailouts.

In short, they are invested in the system as it exists, and would be unlikely to push for any ambitious reforms.

Several business leaders such as Chris Liddell, a former chief financial officer for Microsoft and General Motors, have risen to the top. Liddell, a New Zealand native, has become Leavitt’s right hand man, having recently been named Executive Director of the transition.

There’s also Jim Quigley  (former CEO and now Senior Partner of Deloitte) who has been charged with overseeing the agency review team operation (this essentially involves an audit of past administration departments, in order to craft future policies). If your not seeing a pattern, Quigley comes from the private sector and has no experience in politics or government. Normally, leaders of this stature are angling for ambassadorships, but it seems the hot ticket is now an administration post. “Nobody like that volunteers for transition unless they’re looking for full-time employment,” one insider insisted.

Movement conservatives have ideological reasons to worry about Leavitt, but some in Boston have personal reasons. As they say, “to the victor’s go the spoils.” New administrations always bring loyalists to Washington, and the ruling class tends to consist of denizens of the president’s home state. When Jimmy Carter won in 1976, a cadre of young Georgians came with him. Ronald Reagan brought California loyalists like Mike Deaver, Ed Meese and Lyn Nofziger to town. Clinton brought the Arkansas crowd. George W. Bush obviously had Texas loyalists to take care of. But it could be that the winners — the people who actually run the show in a Romney administration — will come from Utah, not Massachusetts.

Leavitt’s appointment, of course, has been controversial from day one — primarily because his consulting firm advises states on how to set up health care exchanges that are ObamaCare compliant. As the New York Times reported, “In an speech to the National Governors Association last year, Mr. Leavitt said that the health care ‘exchanges’ at the heart of what conservatives call ‘Obamacare’ were a good idea and should be implemented by state officials. The exchanges, he told the governors, are ‘a very practical solution to a problem that needs to be solved.’” For obvious reasons, this is a conflict of interest between what benefits Leavitt personally, versus what Romney promised during the campaign.

A second instance occurred earlier this month, when the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin — known for her close relations with Team Boston — was harshly critical of the decision to name Robert Zoellick (who has also worked for Goldman Sachs and as an adviser to Enron) as Romney’s transition chief for national security. Rubin accused of being “soft” on China, and hinted he might share James A. Baker’s “anti-Israel stance.” Regardless of who has the correct foreign policy, it is clear that Zoellick’s philosophy runs counter to the image Romney ran (and won) the primary advocating.

The very fact that controversial transition moves have leaked is a problem. This is supposed to be invisible. Some Republicans surely see such internal jockeying as a distraction from the goal of winning the White House, but others argue this is a fight worth having. Sometimes it’s not enough to win the election — conservatives (if they want an administration that shares their goals) also have to win the campaign within the campaign. For what does it profit a movement to win the election, but lose its soul?

Matt K. Lewis