He'd been a force in politics, books, television and film for years beforehand, so it wouldn't be right to say that, before 2012, Stuart Stevens was an unknown commodity. But after Stevens had been named the chief strategist of Mitt Romney's second presidential campaign, he was introduced to most folks — in profiles like this one and this one — as a different kind of political operative. More literate. More thoughtful. More erudite.
You've always got to be extra careful when assessing someone who's made a nice living off of helping others control how they're perceived, but anyone who's spoken with Stevens — or read any of his books, including "The Last Season: A Father, a Son, and a Lifetime of College Football," his latest — will concede that the man is no James Carville or Karl Rove. He loves politics, no doubt, and is a fierce competitor. But his interests extend far beyond the realms of Fox News and CNN. Far beyond his country's own borders, in fact.
Recently, Stevens spoke over the phone with Salon about his experiences in 2012, the current presidential campaign, and whether his most recent book was his attempt to take a break from politics — or truly say goodbye. Our conversation, which can be found below, has been edited for clarity and length.
When I was reading the book, there was a part of me that wanted to ask you, why are you so hard on yourself about losing the 2012 election? You recognize that you were going up against objectively tough odds — yet you don't cut yourself even an inch of slack. Why not?
I think that political consultants are hired for one reason — and that’s to win. And when you don’t win, you fail. Nobody makes excuses when you win, why should you make excuses when you lose? The nature of being a consultant — if you really like it, you really do it as a profession and you really do it for big races— is to always believe there was one more thing you could do [to win]. If you didn’t take a loss personally, that is unimaginable to me.
You write in the book that it's very difficult to talk about what it's like to work on a presidential campaign with someone who hasn't had the experience for themselves. You also say that it's the having been on a campaign that matters — not whether it was a Republican or Democratic one. What is it that people who haven't done it misunderstand about being on a presidential campaign?
The difficulty of a presidential campaign is so exponentially greater than anything in politics. I think we’re seeing this now on the Republican side, with all these candidates running who hadn’t run before. Some of them were critical of Governor Romney; a lot of political operatives were critical of Gov. Romney’s campaign. Now they’re out there and they see just how difficult this is.
The difference between running for president and governor or senator is the difference between playing junior high school football and being in the Super Bowl. That’s just difficult to explain to anybody because they look the same, in a way. You’re a candidate, you’re a campaign operative, there’s a campaign election -- all of the things kind of look the same. But it’s just a million times harder, and more complicated. It’s just different.
The level of scrutiny the media subjects you to is amped up much more than observers imagine?
That pressure is extraordinary; and that’s just very difficult for people to understand. The attention that campaigns get now is very different than it used to be. Campaigns are covered a lot like sports, which I think is kind of fun in some ways. But everybody has an opinion, and the majority of political commentary is equivalent to those [people] who call Mad Dog and tell Tom Brady what he should’ve done. Nobody ever calls Mad Dog to say that Tom Brady or Bill Belichick called the right play.
Your mistakes get amplified — and you tend to only get noticed for your mistakes.
In most campaigns, if you’re doing your job in a governor’s race or senate race and you screw up, you can go to the gym. Get away from it; whatever.
The presidential race, you screw up and go to the gym, they’re talking about it on television. Your friends call you and ask you, “What are you, out of your mind? What were you thinking?” Your mom calls and says, “I love you; but are you crazy?” It’s all-consuming. And that’s a very difficult thing to describe unless you’ve been through it.
It sounds like a pretty awful experience, frankly.
Quiet a lot of people don’t like doing campaigns so much. I like campaigns a lot. I’ve been staging campaigns longer than most people. But you have to really enjoy fighting; you have to enjoy conflict. Campaigns are not a good place for conflict-avoidant people. At a certain point, most people get tired of fighting — which is probably very healthy! [Laughs]
Do you still feel positively about campaigns? Was writing this book a cathartic experience that left you reinvigorated, in that sense? I could imagine just as easily that it felt more like a "goodbye."
In the middle of writing this book, we did Thad Cochran’s campaign for the Senate, which was probably the toughest primary in the country. It was one of the toughest races I ever did in my life: I came out to Mississippi to help for three days and I stayed for seven weeks.
When you’re in every race, I really love that. But I’ve chosen not to get involved in a presidential race this year. I’ve had offers, frankly, to be involved in a high level in these races. It hasn’t felt right to me. I think that it would feel right in another term, another circumstance.
Well, it's certainly been an entertaining primary thus far, especially on the Republican side.
I think, arguably, it’s been more interesting and crazy on the Democratic side. That’s the one to appreciate.
For the first time in history, you have a socialist who’s closing it on a Democratic frontrunner. I mean, we toss around the word "historical"; we’ve had socialists [run for office] plenty of times but we’ve never had one do as well as Bernie Sanders. That strikes me as hugely important. And when you look at what’s happening in England, Greece, it seems to be part of something bigger that I don’t think is being properly appreciated.
Any guess as to why it's going ignored, at least by some?
I think, somehow, the pyrotechnics of Donald Trump have obscured that — plus a false assumption that Hillary Clinton was going to win. Like or hate Bernie Sanders, what he’s doing is extraordinary. My bet is that, in February, the bigger story is going to be the Democratic primary.
Do you envision Vice President Biden being in the mix by that point?
I have no idea. I just don’t have any feel for it.
I’m very fond of the 1968 analogy for the Democratic primary. I’m writing this piece for HBO, and it’s set in the early ’60s, so I’m reading a lot about this, so I may be under the influence; but I think that Bernie Sanders is very likely to play the role of Eugene McCarthy, knocking off a de facto incumbent.
I doubt he will be the nominee, but I also doubt that Hillary Clinton will be. I think Hillary Clinton has a superb campaign so far. Technically, her campaign staff — it’s as good as it gets. But we’ve really never seen a campaign like this; it just continues to go down. Most campaigns always stop — like, they’ll go down, they’ll go up, they’ll plateau. She’s just going down.
Some folks within her campaign — and some of her supporters who aren't involved, officially — chalk that up in part to media bias. As someone who's been in the situation of running a campaign and having to grapple with the media and its biases, what's your gut response when you hear those kinds of complaints?
Give me a break. They say the New York Times [is against her]; a paper that’s endorsed every Democrat since Truman, if not before. It’s an absurdity. What they’re really saying, I think, is that they’re not being treated the same way as Barack Obama was in 2008 — which I think is true. But I don’t think we’ll ever see that again, and I think [the complaint] is sort of like showing up at the Super Bowl and saying, “Someone’s trying to tackle me!" I think it’s a joke.
To get back to Trump for a minute. Maybe it's because you seem to be kind of a relaxed guy by nature, but you didn't sound especially anxious about his candidacy. Do you think, therefore, that he's just a media creation?
In April of 2011, Donald Trump was getting 26 percent of the Republican vote. He wasn’t even a candidate. And that wasn’t CNN’s fault. I remember laughing about it with Mitt Romney. He said, “Look, I’m losing to a guy that’s not even in the race!” [Laughs] And that wasn’t CNN’s fault!
There’s a certain percentage of the Republican Party that clearly likes Donald Trump being in the race. Now, he hasn’t been able to get much above that 26 percent; and now it maybe looks like he’s going down. I don’t think Donald Trump is going to be the nominee. I don’t think he’s going to go all the way to the [convention].
Some people have kicked around the idea, mostly fancifully, that Romney could be "drafted" into the race to stop Trump if it looked like the latter was going to win. How much do you roll your eyes — if at all — when you hear that kind of talk?
I talk to Mitt Romney but we never bring this up. Running for president, ultimately, is a deeply personal decision. I think for all the talk about when he was thinking about this in January, it came down to a very personal decision. There’s not a bitter bone in his body; he’s the most forward-looking person I know. They say his father was like that. And he’s a happy person. It’s impossible to know what’s going to happen here in the primaries. But whatever the decision is, it's going to be a personal decision more than a political decision.