Stuart Stevens has served on five presidential campaigns, including most recently as top political strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Stevens has written a number of books, including The Last Season: A Father, a Son, and a Lifetime of College Football and The Big Enchilada: Campaign Adventures with the Cockeyed Optimists from Texas Who Won the Biggest Prize in Politics. He has always believed in doing everything to the extreme, whether it’s as an endurance sports enthusiast or avid anti-Trump spokesperson. At the end of Stevens’s Winter Fellowship at the Institute of Politics, the Gate’s Danielle Schmidt sat down with him to discuss his life, the game of politics, race, and the thug-ocracy of Donald Trump.
The Gate: You have a lot of interests—extreme sports, politics, writing—how do they all tie in together?
Stuart Stevens: Not very well. I have a very obsessive personality, which is a defect, not an asset. I’m not very good at the pursuit of leisure as leisure: I always have to have goals. Everything I do has to be, to a fault, goal-oriented. For the sports I do, I haven’t gotten to a point where I can do them just for the enjoyment of doing them. It has to have a goal to motivate me to do them, and that’s what I enjoy. With writing, I’m always thinking I should be writing more. This novel that is coming out in June, I actually started writing during the Romney campaign because I had so much downtime sitting in holding rooms or planes. I started writing this novel so I wouldn’t be wasting any time.
Gate: When you were skiing the last 100 kilometers to the North Pole, what was going through your mind? Were you thinking about goals?
Stevens: I was there to write an article about the guy who was leading the trip, this Norwegian man who is a great adventurer: Børge Ousland. A lot of the trip was trying to talk to Børge about his life and how he ended up doing all these incredible feats. He specializes in long unsupported trips across the ice. He skied from Russia, through the North Pole, to Norway. He does crazy things—68 days on the ice—and has set all these records. I thought he would have come from some sort of Norwegian survivalist family, but in fact he comes from this very urbane family. His father is a famous political cartoonist, and his mother is a famous dress designer. There’s something about endurance sports that’s very isolating, which I like. I like that about all the long-distance endurance stuff. It really requires a lot of focus. I think one of the phenomenons people write about a lot is how interconnected we all are now. There’s this great book by a Canadian writer called The End of Absence. It talks about how we don’t have this sense of being absent from life anymore. A lot of studies have been done on how it affects our thinking and cognitive processes. We rely on phones now as a sort of collective memory. One thing about skiing to the North Pole, for example, is that you disconnect from life. I think there’s something about that that’s very valuable. I’ve always believed in doing things to the extreme, in that sense. In endurance sports, there’s this common saying that you’ll never know how far you can go until you get there. You get out there on the edge and see how far you can go.
Gate: Primary election campaigns started almost a year before it came time to vote—how are politics like an endurance sport? Do you strategize for an endurance race and an election in the same way?
Stevens: In a presidential race (I’ve done five of these now), it takes complete focus. The first one I did was the Bob Dole campaign in 1996. I was living in New York, where we did all our production. The Dole campaign was in Washington, DC. I thought that would be an advantage, that it would isolate me, but it was a big disadvantage. So when I did the Bush campaign, I moved to Austin in April of 1999. You just had to live it; that’s the only way to do it. In the Romney campaign, our whole company moved to Boston. I lived in an apartment 150 yards from the campaign headquarters, and the problem was that was too far. You have to just write off your life for that period. One of the realities of this primary season is that a lot of candidates and their staffs is that they never gave Mitt Romney enough respect for what he did. They say, “Well it can’t be this hard, Mitt Romney did it.” Governor Walker was that way—critical of Mitt Romney—and he didn’t last eighty days. Same with a lot of the Bush campaign. They had no idea how hard this is, and how hard it is on you. The Bush campaign had a super PAC being run out of California, a Miami operation, and one in Tallahassee too. You can’t try to maintain a normal life. The Obama campaign centered it all here in Chicago, and I think it just requires that complete obsession. That’s why I never went on television in 2012, and I never tweeted or anything like that. There were times people said that I should have, and it showed how out of touch we were with social media. First of all, now that I do tweet, I’ve shown that any idea that we would’ve been better off had I tweeted has been completely dispelled—we probably would’ve lost Utah! It’s just bandwidth: you can’t think about anything else. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, by Hunter Thompson, is a fantastic book that still holds up beautifully. It’s about the 1972 presidential campaign. There’s a scene in there towards the end of the campaign where a friend of Thompson’s asks him if he wants to go to a movie, and Hunter almost hits him. Like he would have time to go to a movie was so offensive. When I read about these men and women being deployed, to me it’s kind of like that, to an extent you can really compare anything to an experience of putting your life on the line. There’s that sense of being completely isolated from everything else. You have to derealize your life, just write everything off, and be willing to do that. That’s why a lot of people only do one campaign or don’t like to do campaigns. There’s something about that totality of focus that I’m drawn to. It’s probably some deep character flaw. I find it intense, and I like that intensity.
Gate: You said in an interview last year that, “Race is still a key in which most of American life is played, and that’s undeniable. And I don’t have any doubt whatsoever that as a white person, odds are I’m treated differently than a black person by police. To the degree you can have a national discussion about it I think is positive.” Police violence has been a key issue in the nation as well as close to home here in Chicago. How important will this election be in changing the public’s relation with the police?
Stevens: Different communities have had different relations with the police for a long time, and one of the things that’s become apparent that’s positive is these differences. As a teenager, I had some bad experiences with cops, but the idea of being white and privileged limited in every case how serious some situation was going to get. To the degree that people become aware of these differences is really valuable and important. I’m not someone who would be quick to cast a lot of blame on the police officers. I think that’s sort of an easy solution, and we have no idea what it’s like to be a police officer. But I think to the degree that there can be more discussion about it is good for everybody. I think when it’s negative is when it’s used for cheap political shots, and both sides are super guilty of this. Certainly Hillary Clinton has been very guilty of this, talking about super predators and the history of the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, these kinds of things. But Republicans have [done this] too. I think it’s one of these things in life that is a very messy, clumsy, painful, and awkward discussion. One of the hardest things is to have a public discussion about race in this country. Probably the second hardest is about police and violence. Combine the two, and it’s just an incredibly difficult and painful discussion, but I think it’s important to have it.
Gate: So then is it the role of the national or state government to improve police-public relations, or does it need to be a grassroots movement?
Stevens: It’s the role of everybody.
Gate: Polls show that in 2012, only one percent of the African American population identified as “strong Republican” and only three percent said they were even “near Republican.” Why is the African American community not identifying as Republican? Should they?
Stevens: Well first of all, I think I would be last person to be able to answer that question because I’m not African American. I think part of the problem Republicans have had is getting a bunch of white guys together to decide what African Americans should be thinking. That’s probably the worst, and then the second worst is guys sitting around in a room talking about how to get women to vote for guys. Odds are both of those discussions are not going to end up with positive results. Listen, clearly the greatest failure of the Republican party in modern times has been an inability to connect with and speak to African Americans. The larger has been, in the past ten years, our failure to connect with Hispanic voters, or even non-white voters as a whole. The two are related but distinct. I don’t think that the reason Hispanics have been problematic with Republicans is the same as African Americans completely because I think that would be disrespectful to the unique history and heritage of African Americans. Obviously there’s not a Hispanic history of slavery in this country, as there is with African Americans. It’s a great failure. I think you can see a path forward, in just a political science sense, that the Republicans can appeal to Hispanics more than they can appeal to African Americans. We’ve done it before in the George W. Bush campaign, when we were up to forty percent or so, but we’ve never gotten forty percent of African Americans. One of the more interesting and troubling realities is that when you look at African American candidates, who are Republican, who win or lose, they tend not to do particularly better with African Americans. So it’s not a case where you just say, “Okay, it’s because that person is not an African American.” I worked for Bob Ehrlich’s campaign in Maryland. He was the first Republican governor elected in 25 years, the last one was Spiro Agnew, which didn’t exactly help the brand. But he selected Michael Steele, an African American, as his running mate. Michael Steele was from Prince George’s County, a more African American community, but there’s really no data to show that Steele helped him with African Americans or helped the ticket [in that way]. There is data to show that it helped him with moderate suburban white voters because it sent a signal.
I will make the prediction, and all my predictions about Donald Trump have been wrong, so there’s absolutely no reason this should break from that one hundred percent batting average of being wrong, but I would predict that if Donald Trump is the nominee, he will have an African American running mate. But I don’t think it will help with African Americans. It’s a great problem. There’s a lot of discussion now that Republicans can win only if they get more white people to vote. First of all, it’s not true. Mitt Romney got a larger percentage of white votes than Ronald Reagan in 1980, and it’s really hard to get much more. Yes, there are white people out there who are conservatives who don’t vote for you, but you reach a point where you just can’t get enough of them to vote for you. But I also think that even if you could, that’s a moral failure as a party and as a governing coalition. You can’t be an effective party or effective president if you are representing an increasingly diverse country without appealing more effectively to that diversity. And I think there’s a moral imperative to do that. Even if you could get elected that way, it would be a great failure to embrace that as political ends. I think that was one of the great original sins of Obamacare is that it was passed almost through straight party line. You need more consensus on any of these big issues, that’s sort of the flip side. Republicans have to get more consensus.
Gate: How was Mitt Romney in the 2012 Republican primary different from a front runner in this primary, such as Donald Trump or Ted Cruz?
Stevens: Romney was better. The amazing thing to me is the inability of these candidates to confront Donald Trump. If you look back to when Rick Perry got in the race against Mitt Romney, he was ten to fifteen points ahead. [Perry] had this great jobs record and in that first debate, in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Mitt Romney went right at his jobs record, very respectfully, but said, “You know, I don’t think it’s that good. George Bush had a better jobs record and by the way, so did I.” It was the beginning of the unravelling of Rick Perry’s candidacy. It wasn’t the “oops” moment that came after that happened. None of these candidates running against Donald Trump had either the ability, courage, or political wherewithal to stand up to Donald Trump and look him in the eye and say, “You’re a ridiculous candidate. You don’t deserve to be near this stage.” And they should have. Some didn’t do it because they thought it was in their best interest to try to knock off other people, but it’s been a great enabling factor for Donald Trump. I just wrote a piece in The Daily Beast comparing what’s happening in the Republican primary to what happened in World War I, and I think that they are very similar. I don’t think it’s because Donald Trump is a great candidate—I think in many ways, he’s one of the weakest candidates I’ve ever seen in my life. He knows nothing and doesn’t attempt to learn anything. He responds to everything: I mean he attacks me! I’ve never seen anybody as easy to get off-message as Donald Trump. He’s like an adolescent boy shown a picture of a girl in a bikini—he can’t focus. He doesn’t have a particular ideological or geographical base, and yet these candidates have allowed him. They didn’t attack him long enough, and they should have. Romney would have, as seen in that speech. Romney disassembled him in that speech. Romney would have left him in a little melted down mess on the stage.
Gate: Last month in an article, you wrote, “If Trump is what Republicans stand for, the party has walked away from every fundamental value.” What are some of the fundamental values of the Republican party?
Stevens: Well, let’s start with the Constitution. Here’s a guy who goes out and attacks the first amendment; he threatens Jeff Bezos, who owns Washington Post, because he doesn’t like an article. He says you know we’re going to get Amazon [of which Bezos is the current CEO]. So if we’re going to attack the first amendment, why not attack the second amendment? Nobody knows what the third is, but we could go after the third. If the Republicans don’t stand for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and these freedoms, what in the world do they stand for? A candidate for president bragged about ordering troops to commit war crimes. If the Republican Party doesn’t respect the role of commander-in-chief and defending troops, it stands for nothing. If you strip it all away, Donald Trump is a candidate of ignorance. He’s someone who knows nothing and prides himself on knowing nothing. And if the Republican party cannot stand for some ideas of logical thought, it really just stands for nothing. This is someone who doesn’t know what the nuclear triad is, which is an eighth or ninth grade level of civics. At its heart, there’s this sort of ugly lack of respect for others that is Donald Trump. It’s not that he’s crazy right-wing—it’s just a thug-ocracy. He’s basically this trust fund thug, and he’s surrounded himself with people whose major qualifications are that they will say yes to him. He’s a simple kind of Tony Soprano’s gang, and this is a guy who should be nowhere near the Oval Office. Listen, I think Hillary Clinton is a disaster as a candidate, and the fact that after President Barack Obama, you end up with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. . . is mind-boggling. It’s like the faculty room from hell. But I don’t think they’re dangerous. I don’t think Hillary Clinton is a dangerous president. I think she can be a terrible president, but I think Donald Trump is a dangerous person because he’s so emotionally unstable. And we’re going to hand the security apparatus of this country to someone who is threatening Jeff Bezos? It would be a monumental mistake. This is how democracies start to end.
Gate: Would returning to these Constitutional core-values improve the image of the Republican party among key demographic groups that they are missing?
Stevens: You know, it goes back to the Republican party having a problem with young voters, but not really. Romney won young voters under thirty by seven points, if they were white. The problem was we lost nonwhite voters who were under thirty by larger margins. At the root, the problem is nonwhite voters, not young. Same with women. Romney won women, if they were white, by a good number. But we lost nonwhite women. I think that is the crux of the problem. Do I think we lost nonwhite voters because we weren’t standing up enough for freedom of press? No, I don’t think so. But that was a different circumstance—we didn’t have a candidate like Trump. I think that the party has to build a relationship with these voters that is based upon a different approach to government than the Democrats have. That’s fundamentally difficult.
Gate: Any final thoughts about your quarter here as an IOP Fellow?
Stevens: I was blown away by the students. I’ve been doing all this TV because I’ve been on this anti-Trump crusade. Normally I don’t like doing television, but I like doing it if only because after I do, Trump tweets negative things about me and it’s hysterical. But anyway, they ask better questions than I’ve been asked by any journalist. They’re unbelievably good. I couldn’t be more impressed.
Danielle Schmidt is a third-year Public Policy and Philosophy double major and Human Rights minor. Danielle has interned for a non-profit employment center on the South Side and a bipartisan advocacy organization for immigration reform; she served as a Field Director for an Illinois State Representative as well. On campus, she volunteers for New Americans and enjoys exploring the city with her cattle dog.