The PJ Tatler

Bush’s Hire of Top Romney Strategist a Zero-Sum Game for Republicans

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s political action committee’s hire of David Kochel, a close Romney advisor for the last six years, to run Bush’s not-yet-official presidential campaign, is enough to inspire confidence in anyone.

Anyone, that is, who considers Romney’s 2008 campaign successful; his 2012 campaign worth extending; his consolidation of the fragmented Republican base effective; and his status as the well-entrenched establishment candidate an asset with voters who are disillusioned with the status quo.

If the room just got quiet, it’s probably not from nostalgia for the good old days when former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was running for president — for five straight years. These were not the worst of times for the GOP. But they certainly weren’t the best.

It is a little puzzling, then, that Kochel’s hire should be viewed as the next great key to Jeb Bush’s White House bid. Yet as the Des Moines Register reported last week, many view the acquisition of Kochel as an omen for becoming “the eventual mainstream consensus pick.” His rising stock over the last year as a sought-after campaign strategist by likely GOP nomination seekers such as Senators Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Bush suggests that Romney’s electoral woes are attributable to his own personal execution, not to campaign strategy. Can that be?

Likelier than not, both are blameworthy. Romney’s critics on the Right have long argued that one cannot build a successful campaign around an empty suit. Strategy, while essential, cannot compensate for an uncanny inability to persuade voters that you believe what you say.

On the other hand, David Axelrod did just that — built a media campaign around the empty suit of Barack Obama, who won in 2008 with a vacuous message and virtually no record — and then did it again. Not that all empty suits are created equal; what Obama lacked in substance he made up for in demagoguery, which, frankly, Romney could have used a little more of, as a substitute for red-blooded conviction.

If anything, this study in contrasts suggests that Obama won, and Romney lost, on both personality and strategy.

So why does wooing Kochel, despite Romney’s failed campaigns, still seem more prudent than, say, betting on Karl Rove’s electoral math? In part for reasons emphasized by Bush advisors, such as Kochel’s calling Iowa, rather than Washington, D.C., home, and his vast experience with state races — including that of recently elected Republican Senator Joni Ernst.

For others, though, excitement over the Kochel grab is less political than dramatic — the die is cast, the line drawn, the consigliere defected and under new guard. So “personally vested” was Kochel in Romney, according to one GOP strategist, that he couldn’t see Kochel dropping this “bombshell in Romney world … without having a heart-to-heart with Mitt himself.”

There’s another reason the Kochel acquisition buzz may be less about Bush’s prospects than Romney’s. Just hours after the defection, Romney announced (again) that he will not be running in 2016. Surely the loss of such an advisor reduced the likelihood of the former governor attempting a Henry Clay-like third, or even fourth, losing presidential bid.

If a significant contingent of Republican voters would have felt that way about another Romney campaign, then Kochel’s move to Bush, another Republican former governor with deep establishment ties—and now with a top Romney strategist—is a zero-sum game.

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Michael Hamilton is the lead writer and editor of Good Comma Editing, LLC and a co-founder of Ohio Conservative Review.