Planning a Presidency That Never Was: Inside the Romney Transition Team

Former Utah Governor and Romney transition team leader Mike Leavitt tells TIME about the process of planning a Romney presidency

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Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt watches before he campaigns for Mitt Romney at Hy Vee Center, Iowa Events Center, in Des Moines, Iowa on Nov. 4, 2012.
Charles Dharapak / AP

Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt watches before he campaigns for Mitt Romney at Hy Vee Center, Iowa Events Center, in Des Moines, Iowa on Nov. 4, 2012.

Of all the operatives working on the presidential election, Mike Leavitt was one of the most important and the most invisible. He was the head of the Republican nominee’s presidential transition team, the man charged with planning a presidency that never was. “We built a great ship, but it just didn’t sail,” Leavitt says.

Leavitt partly credits his longtime friendship with Romney, solidified after Leavitt helped install the candidate to turn around the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, for getting the job. But his background also suited him to the task. A former governor of Utah, Leavitt was the Secretary for Health and Human Services under George W. Bush, a businessman and a fellow Mormon. His work on campaigns dates back to the 1970s, and he had been strategizing with Romney for months before his role in the campaign was formally cast. He took on the transition job in May, after Rick Santorum had left the race and Romney’s nomination had become all but official.

Like the candidate, Leavitt was meticulous. During his first two months on the job, he collected 22 books on presidential transitions and interviewed people who had filled the role before. The Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan outfit that launched a “Ready to Govern” program in 2008, organized a retreat in Tarrytown, N.Y., with Romney advisors and transition veterans, including a member of Obama’s 2008 team. Later in the summer, Leavitt also spoke twice with Obama’s chief of staff, Jack Lew. “One of the big lessons is administrations who do it well succeed,” Leavitt says of what he learned about transitions, “and administrations who do it poorly rarely recover.” He cites Jimmy Carter’s team as an example of the latter, for having a “big, public and divisive set of disagreements about how they would proceed and who would be in charge.”

Binders, of all things, were what Leavitt learned to avoid during his transition prep. Many transition teams, he says, put together good people who would walk into agencies armed with “large binders full of material” that reflected their interests more than the candidate’s, yielding plans that were “big and unactionable.” Leavitt decided the transition would be focused on Romney’s campaign promises, a list that included the repeal of Obamacare on “Day One,” approving the Keystone XL pipeline, labeling China as a currency manipulator and halting regulations that had been put in place under Obama. “Doing things on Day One,” Leavitt says, “takes activity on Day minus-90.”

Leavitt broke the transition into four phases: a “readiness phase” that stretched from May to the convention; a “planning phase” from the convention to Election Day; and two he didn’t get to, a “transition phase” and a “handoff phase.” During the readiness period, he put together a team of private- and public-sector stalwarts that included executive types such as Chris Liddell, a former chief financial officer of General Motors and Microsoft, and bureaucrats like Steve Preston, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under George W. Bush. That team would meet almost every Monday in Boston with top aides from the Romney campaign.

Before the convention, the transition team shaped Romney’s campaign promises—which they referred to as the “general instructions”—into a “200-day plan” for all that President Romney needed to accomplish. They identified more than 400 of the most important presidential appointments and nominations, from Cabinet-level positions on down, as well as when each needed to be filled. They framed the budget and orchestrated plans for operations during the President-Elect phase, what Leavitt calls a “White House in waiting.” And they started seeking out allies on the Hill.

“You had to be certain that you weren’t off just planning in a vacuum,” Leavitt says. “We were actually having conversations with members of the Congress about how to work together to get this stuff done.” By the time the Romney campaign rolled into Tampa, the transition team had grown to about 25 staffers. After the convention, that number shot up to nearly 300.

As the Democratic National Convention kicked off on Sept. 4, Leavitt’s team was moving into three floors of a federal building at the corner of C and 3rd  streets in Southwest Washington. Leavitt took advantage of a law passed in 2010 that aims to facilitate smooth transitions by offering nominees support from the federal government in the form of office space, government emails and phone numbers, data security and certain security clearances. In their new headquarters less than two miles from the White House, analysts, interns and strategists were broken up into “a miniature version of the federal government.” Workers were assigned to roughly 40 specific agencies and departments, and each outfit was allotted a physical space. The Treasury Department, for example, might be in the corner of one room, with the Energy Department stationed in an office down the hall.

In September and October, members of those mock departments—many of whom had experience working for the real thing—mapped out a plan for transforming campaign promises into reality. The team was ready to start putting decisions in front of Mitt Romney the moment after the election. Leavitt, who would have been a likely contender for Romney’s chief of staff, had every day on his calendar planned from Nov. 7 to Jan. 20.

Then came Election Night. Leavitt was in Boston with Romney when their hopes for the presidency were dashed. “There was a whole group of people standing on the balls of their feet, waiting to move, to get started on very complex tasks over the next 77 days,” he says. “There were times when it felt certain we would, and there were times when you’d say ‘I’m not sure we will.'” Adds Leavitt: “Obviously, it was a disappointment.”

Election Night also proved that the transition team, like the campaign, was capable of missteps despite careful planning. Romney’s President-Elect website, which had a page for accepting the 250,000 resumes Leavitt says they were expecting, went live for 14 minutes — long enough for bloggers to grab images. Leavitt says it was the result of a “technical error.”

Romney was appreciative of everyone’s work on the transition, Leavitt says. After the election, that team had only three days to clear out of their government space. Was that chaotic, getting an office of 300 people shut down in 72 hours? “Nah,” Leavitt says. “We were efficient.”

39 comments
dawnkucera
dawnkucera

Yeah, they were really efficient - cancelled staffers credit cards within an hour of Romney's concession speech - the staffers didn't have the cards to pay for taxis back to their hotel, or pay for that night's lodging.    With loyalty to staff like that, you gotta wonder what he would have done to us normal Americans. 

TomCederberg
TomCederberg

What's the big deal Obama will cost us trillions before he's done.

MDCA
MDCA

Just reading the things "President Romney" would have done in Day 1, gave me the shivers.  He would have put the country back 100 years, and squarely in the hands of the few billionaires who would have been successful in putting him in the WH.  Shudder!

NoWorrys
NoWorrys

The phoney, wannabe Commander in Chief,aka,"Chickenhawk Romney",bit the dust and drug his behind into obscurity.Good riddance,plastic man.

ILoveObama
ILoveObama

LOL ... Romney was so sure he won .... :-)  The right candidate was elected. Majority rules.

sandifjm
sandifjm

To be perfectly honest, the prospect of a Romney presidency scared me more than Bush did in 2000.  Granted, I didn't give Dubya enough credit for how badly he could screw things up, but Willard would have been a nightmare. The screenshot of the president-elect website made me shudder.

wololooj
wololooj

"George W. Bush, a businessman and a fellow Mormon".... what

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

Leavitt decided the transition would be focused on Romney’s campaign promises, a list that included the repeal of Obamacare on “Day One,” approving the Keystone XL pipeline, labeling China as a currency manipulator and halting regulations that had been put in place under Obama.

Wow, then America certainly dodged a bullet.

cent-fan
cent-fan

Romney was appreciative of everyone’s work on the transition, Leavitt says. After the election, that team had only three days to clear out of their government space. Was that chaotic, getting an office of 300 people shut down in 72 hours? “Nah,” Leavitt says. “We were efficient.  The bus fuel credit card was active for a few hours and a few of the people were smokers so there were lighters available.  It didn't last long.”

Fla4Me
Fla4Me

I heard that the Romney team had a fireworks show ready to go in Boston harbor as part of a victory celebration.  I know he keeps a home there but it strikes me as strange to hold your party in a state you didn't win and in a city you didn't win.  Clueless...

PerryWhite1
PerryWhite1

Is there any doubt we missed a bullet with this arrogant, entitled narcissist? Sometimes I imagine a Romney presidency and have to repress an involuntary shudder of nausea.

Reality-Based
Reality-Based

"Leavitt decided the transition would be focused on...the repeal of Obamacare on “Day One,” approving the Keystone XL pipeline, labeling China as a currency manipulator..."

Goodness, they really did believe their own fantasies.

Arimathean
Arimathean

That must have been a frustrating experience, to put so much work into an enterprise that ultimately fizzled.  Still, kudos to the professionals who put the hours of work in to ensure a productive transition.

nflfoghorn
nflfoghorn

That president-elect web page sure did help.

Related (KP tweet):  Bad news from New Mexico: Gov Martinez WILL create an Obamacare exchange. She's offmy future-star list.  

[but how could that hurt her in the long run?]

It appears that Lurch will work on an exchange in FL as well.  The well must be poisoned.

grape_crush
grape_crush

With any luck Leavitt with pass along his own experiences and lessons learned for the next candidates, regardless of party identification. 

Whoever wins the election, everybody wins when such transitions go smoothly.

dawnkucera
dawnkucera

@sandifjm I agree.  I was so scared of a Romney presidency, that for the first time in my life, I got politically active and worked for Obama's re-election.   The nightmare of an Obama concession speech scared me silly.  

sandifjm
sandifjm

@wololooj Read it out loud.  Commas makes all the difference.  This sentence is correct.

A former governor of Utah, (pause) Leavitt was the Secretary for Health and Human Services under George W. Bush, (pause) a businessman and a fellow Mormon.

ILoveObama
ILoveObama

@cent-fan That is how he would have ran the country, too. Snap decisions. Act first, think later ...

NoWorrys
NoWorrys

@Fla4Me They should have used it anyway,to celebrate his defeat. After all,his defeat has greater meaning and reason to celebrate more.

sandifjm
sandifjm

@Fla4Me He lost all of the fun places, and probably had no interest in celebrating in those areas that voted for him by such large margins.  Has any candidate in history ever lost 4 "home" states (CA, NH, MI, and MA) at the same time?

D_Coder
D_Coder

@Fla4Me Well... he *was* Governor of Massachusetts for four years, and he does *live* in MA. Although it was very obvious during the campaign that he didn't want Republican voters to know that! "As Governor of (ahem) My State..."

dawnkucera
dawnkucera

@Reality-Based Silly me -  I thought it was about jobs jobs jobs.  What was I thinking? Well, Michelle Bachmann did his #1 task - she is "proud" to introduce the first bill of the 113th Congress (I gotta think that 13 number does not bode will), to repeal Obamacare - for the 34th try.   Do not these people realize there are big issues to work on? 

S_Deemer
S_Deemer

@Arimathean This article provides an insight to why so many Republicans, from Romney on down, were so shell-shocked last Tuesday. Hats off to Mr. Leavitt — it sounds like he was running the best managed part of the Romney campaign.

La_Randy
La_Randy

@nflfoghorn Jindal has decided to let the Feds do Louisiana's exchange.

If the ACA becomes more popular it will only make him (Jindal) look more foolish and unqualified for the Executive Branch in the future.

grape_crush
grape_crush

I guess that I'm just looking at it as showing an appreciation for things that run smoothly, not that I agree or disagree with what the transition moves us towards.

kbanginmotown
kbanginmotown

 I beg to differ, grape. Had Romney won --::shudder::-- I would have hoped against hope that the Repeal of Obamacare, Privitization of Medicare and Invasion of Iran would NOT have gonesmoothly...

owades
owades

@sandifjm @wololooj

This sentence is a good example of the need for the so-called Oxford, or serial, comma. If a comma had been placed after "businessman," the three elements that describe Mr. Leavitt would have been clear: (1) Secretary of HHS, (2) businessman, and (3) Mormon. But without that comma, the logical reading of the sentence would group (2) and (3) together as modifiers of "George W. Bush." The reader shouldn't have to know Bush's religion to parse the sentence.

reallife
reallife

@ILoveObama  

as opposed to the empty suit's way:  try to bully to get your way, and when you dont get it, pout, blame somebody else and do nothing - 

and we have 4 more years of this - thanks - 

that koolaid must taste so good

btw: is the obamaphone still working?

ILoveObama
ILoveObama

@sandifjm @Fla4Me It's unbelievable how many swing states Romney lost ... that says a lot about how the people really feel.

Fla4Me
Fla4Me

@D_Coder @Fla4Me Agreed...another interesting twist from the election.  Its interesting to note that Paul Ryan would have been in the same boat.  R&R didn't win Wisconsin nor did they win Ryan's home town.

dawnkucera
dawnkucera

@S_Deemer @Arimathean The thought that I had was this:  If Mitt and his team were so delusional about the status of the election - and it looks like they really did think they were going to win),  they how badly would they have misjudged real world situations?  That is just downright scary. 

ILoveObama
ILoveObama

@reallife @ILoveObama Maybe you need to live in the real world and have a "RealLife"I wouldn't know anything about an "Obamaphone" ... ?? I have a Master's degree in Criminal Jutsice and can slightly afford a phone, home, etc. Maybe I should ask my law enforcement associates if they know what you are talking about. "Bullying", "Blaming"... sounds like a republican thing to me. As Usual .... and YES!! Four more years of an educated man running our country!Thank GOD! The best man won. Majority RULES!