The day after his election as governor of Massachusetts in 2002, Mitt Romney welcomed reporters to his transition headquarters in the People’s Republic of Cambridge, informed his new constituents that managing the state’s pressing budget crisis would be his top priority, and began fleshing out the top posts within his pending administration.
A decade later, a President Romney would again face immediate fiscal problems. But a vastly different set of circumstances would shape the personnel decisions that Romney could make during his transition to the Oval Office. For one, Romney, despite a 1994 U.S. Senate challenge to Democrat Edward Kennedy, had few concrete ties to the state GOP back then. During this presidential campaign, he has consistently ridden at the front of the 2012 Republican field, is a favorite of the K Street and establishment types, and has become far more thoroughly wired into the party’s power centers.
That, for Romney, is both liberating and confining. In Massachusetts, he had a free hand to pick his top aides, and he won plaudits from Democrats for doing so with evident ideological blinders. And Romney was ruthless in restructuring the bureaucracy, collapsing, for instance, the silos of transportation, housing, and environment under one “supersecretariat.” That post went to Doug Foy, head of the Conservation Law Foundation, a liberal group that had spent much of the previous decade exerting legal pressure on the state to offset the environmental insults of the “Big Dig” tunnel project by investing in mass transit. Romney tabbed former Fidelity Investments Vice Chairman Robert Pozen to oversee a portfolio of economic development, consumer affairs, and labor.
In Washington, a Republican Party awaiting its restoration to the executive branch would have needs. And having been freshly elected as president of the entire nation, Romney would have to balance the party’s interests with the country’s. To help him navigate that terrain, Romney has turned to a longtime friend and political power broker, former Utah Gov. and Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, to lead the effort, largely separate from the day-to-day campaign operation, to people a Romney administration.
“Leavitt has a good idea from an insider’s perspective, as someone who worked in the Cabinet and knows that relationship with the White House,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University professor writing a book about the Bush-Obama transition after the 2008 election. “You have to know what you’re working with. You have to have the process nailed down.”
Early in the effort, Leavitt was joined by longtime Romney confidants: Beth Myers, his senior campaign adviser and Statehouse chief of staff; campaign Chairman Bob White, a friend from Romney’s Bain Capital tenure who led his gubernatorial transition; and Ron Kaufman, a veteran Washington lobbyist and former White House political director.
Game-planning a Romney ascendancy to Washington has been divided between domestic and international issues. Glenn Hubbard, a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Al Hubbard, director of the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush, helm the domestic side, while the international team includes former World Bank President Robert Zoellick.
That circle has expanded. Former Deloitte global CEO Jim Quigley, former Bush 43 White House liaison to Health and Human Services Jamie Burke, and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Steve Preston have all taken leadership roles. American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard has long been close to Romney. Also involved in plotting the transition are, among others, Patton Boggs partner and Romney campaign counsel Ben Ginsberg; Citigroup Managing Director and former diplomat Kent Lucken; George W. Bush’s Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James; former Treasury Undersecretary for International Affairs Tim Adams; former Veterans Affairs Secretary and Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson; former Microsoft and General Motors CFO Chris Liddell; former Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Tevi Troy; and RNC external-affairs adviser and former Ogilvy Government Relations CEO Drew Maloney. Campaign policy czar Lanhee Chen and foreign-policy Director Alex Wong would also likely figure in helping to staff a Romney administration.
For all the pressure on Romney to tend to the GOP erogenous zones, some still envision a transition that hews to his Massachusetts model: nondogmatic, the “best and brightest.”
“He was hiring on merit,” said Dan Winslow, now a Massachusetts GOP state representative who was among Romney’s first hires as chief counsel and who helped oversee the recruiting and vetting process on Beacon Hill. “His focus, when he developed his administration, was entirely on getting the best possible people to the table, and whatever got them to the table didn’t matter. I expect the same focus from President-elect Romney.”
Winslow said that a Republican Party grateful to Romney for parting President Obama from the White House would allow him flexibility. “The fact of the matter is,” Winslow said, “Republicans will back Romney.”
That may be. But if Romney awakes on Nov. 7 as president-elect, he’ll find himself a long way from Cambridge.
Here is a look at who Romney might place in several critical spots. For a full list, visit National Journal.
Secretary of Defense
When the Romney campaign named former World Bank President Robert Zoellick to head its national-security transition team, it set off alarms and prompted a firestorm among a national-security advisory community that runs the gamut from old-school Republican realists, to Israel-first neoconservative idealists, to hawkish nationalists. Coming from the realist wing, Zoellick is seen by the latter two camps as unduly moderate—someone who is too cozy with China and insufficiently pro-Israel. A circular firing squad quickly formed among the Romney team of rivals, who let loose in the press with volleys of non-attributable criticisms aimed at each other.
The incident speaks to the defining elusiveness of Mitt Romney’s worldview. That fundamental uncertainty makes anticipating his likely Cabinet a difficult exercise. However, a few consensus picks for Defense secretary stand out from the likely pack of wannabes.
Former Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., has emerged as the most likely choice. He has been a close adviser on national-security issues since Romney’s first run for the White House in 2008. In the current campaign, Talent’s profile has become even more prominent, as he has raised money and acted as a reliable surrogate for Romney on defense and national-security issues. Perhaps tellingly, when Romney met with British leaders in London on his overseas trip last summer, Talent was one of three advisers in the room.
Talent certainly came by his defense credentials the old-fashioned way. In his freshman year in the House in 1993, he formed a special congressional panel on the decline of military readiness, and he went on to serve on both the House Armed Services and Senate Armed Services committees, eventually chairing Senate Armed Services’ Seapower Subcommittee. He would be well positioned to implement Romney’s plan to enlarge the Navy and increase annual shipbuilding.
Since leaving the Senate in 2007, Talent has continued to focus on military readiness as a distinguished fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Jim Talent has been with Romney from Day One, and even after being deeply involved in defense as a member of Congress, he has immersed himself in national-security issues at Heritage to the point of essentially earning himself a Ph.D. on the subject,” said James Carafano, a defense expert and the director of foreign-policy studies at the Heritage Foundation. “I don’t hear any other names mentioned as prominently as a likely secretary of Defense” in a Romney administration.
Secretary of State
Romney’s pick as secretary of State would likely signal which way his foreign policy is going to go: a harder-line, more neoconservative direction, reflective of his campaign rhetoric? Or traditional Republican realpolitik?
If he moved in the latter direction, as Romney’s recent speech at Virginia Military Institute seemed to indicate, then one could easily see as possibilities such prominent moderate Republicans as Rob Portman, the senator from Ohio and former U.S. trade representative who was on the short list to be Romney’s vice president (and is also in the running for Treasury secretary); Robert Zoellick, the former World Bank president who is now serving as coordinator of national-security transition for the Romney campaign; or Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor, ambassador to China (under Obama), and GOP presidential rival. Two dark horses on the more moderate side are Robert Kimmitt, who was ambassador to Germany and undersecretary of State under George H.W. Bush and, most recently, deputy Treasury secretary under George W. Bush; and Richard Haass, who drew the ire of neoconservatives when he served as policy-planning chief in Colin Powell’s State Department in George W. Bush’s first term but who has been a prominent voice of restrained realism as president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Most of these candidates would likely stir anger in the hawkish precincts of the party, where they are generally viewed as too friendly to China and Russia and not friendly enough toward Israel.
Picks that would tend more toward the hawkish or neoconservative side include some of those within Romney’s inner circle today, in particular Richard Williamson, who has served in various senior-level foreign-policy positions going back to Ronald Reagan and, most recently, was special envoy to Sudan under George W. Bush. An outside possibility is John Bolton, a former U.N. ambassador and undersecretary of State under George W. Bush. But while Bolton is prominent, he proved too far right even for the Bush administration and would be a very risky pick for Romney. A favorite of Vice President Dick Cheney, Bolton ran afoul of senior officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, because of his sometimes lacerating rhetoric and extreme policy positions, and he failed in successive bids to be named Rice’s deputy and to take Douglas Feith’s place as No. 3 at the Pentagon.
Of course, even a moderate secretary of State might not tell us where Romney would go; consider the cautionary example of Colin Powell after Bush picked the retired general as his secretary of State in 2001. Powell was Bush’s first major Cabinet choice, just two weeks after the election. When he introduced Powell in Texas that fall, Bush called him “an American hero” and—as Romney did recently in a major foreign-policy speech—the president-elect evoked Powell’s personal role model, George C. Marshall, another retired general who graced the office in Foggy Bottom. But as it turned out, the hard-line axis of Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, along with a phalanx of neoconservative policymakers, marginalized Powell’s views during the Bush administration.
Office of Management and Budget Director
OMB director is a key job for any Republican who wants to wage major policy fights through the federal budget—an idea that Romney seems to embrace. He has promised to cap federal spending at 20 percent of GDP by 2016, and by picking self-avowed budget geek Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate, Romney also seemed to signal that tough spending choices would be part of his first-term agenda.
Possible names being thrown around in Republican circles for the top budget slot include:
• Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the conservative think tank American Action Forum and the former director of the Congressional Budget Office. He’s as good at politics as he is at policy, having advised Sen. John McCain on his presidential run in 2008.
• Former Rep. Jim Nussle of Iowa, who was director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush and was also chairman of the House Budget Committee. It’s unclear, though, if Nussle would want to return to OMB.
• Former Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who chaired the Senate Budget Committee and remains part of the D.C. conversation through his work with the deficit-reduction advocacy group Fix the Debt.
• Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who also served as OMB director under President George W. Bush and who helped Romney prep for the presidential debates by playing Obama. Overseeing OMB would also be a repeat performance for Portman, and he might be more interested in becoming Treasury secretary.