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.”