With the general election in full swing it’s high time to inaugurate a series that will profile the people advising the Romney and Obama campaigns. Although this series will normally feature profiles of key advisers, for the inaugural post I will explore the role of advisers in campaigns more broadly.
It’s worth noting at the outset, however, that foreign policy is unlikely to be a decisive factor in the campaign. Almost invariably, the election will be decided on economic issues. The possible exceptions to this are the price of oil, the financial crisis in Europe, or a war breaking out with Iran, potentially precipitated by Israeli air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. If oil prices are steep enough, or the European Union’s economic malaise undercuts the U.S. economy, these will play an important role in the election. Paradoxically then, despite President Obama generally high approval ratings on foreign policy and national security, if these issues do play a prominent role in the campaign, it will be to the detriment of the President’s reelection hopes.
With regards to campaign advisers, they are useful indicators of the type of foreign policy a candidate will run if elected. At the same time, one shouldn’t overstate their importance. To begin with, Presidential candidates sometimes run on platforms quite different from how they end up governing. For example, in 1988 George H.W. Bush ran as a Reaganite but, once in office, governed as a Realist. By contrast, whereas George W. Bush ran as a Realist during the 2000 election, his Presidency was more in line with Reagan’s neoconservative ideology, particularly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The neoconservative influence in the younger Bush’s administration, however, was due in no small part to the people he surrounded himself with as President. Many of these people had advised him during the campaign.
But campaign advisers are not always the same ones who get selected for the top foreign policy positions after a candidate is elected. President Obama’s initial top foreign policy advisers, for example, were Hillary Clinton, his bitter rival in the Democratic Primary; Robert Gates, the Defense Secretary to the President who Obama rose to prominence by criticizing; and Jim Jones, a man whom Obama had only spoken to twice before selecting as National Security Advisor. Similarly, Henry Kissinger was a long-time aide to Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon’s main rival in the Republican Party, and even advised both the Nixon and Hubert Humphrey campaigns during the 1968 general election.
These anomalies notwithstanding, advisers to successful campaigns are usually rewarded with influential posts when their candidate takes office. This is especially true for advisers who join the campaign before the nomination is sealed. Thus, while Hillary Clinton got to pick most her team at state, many of the mid-level people serving under Robert Gates and National Security Adviser Jones were those who had been long-time Obama supporters. This is true of Ben Rhodes, Obama’s national security spokesperson, Dennis McDonough, Deputy National Security Advisor, and Mark Lippert, former NSC chief of staff and the President’s nominee for the Defense Department’s top Asia hand, among many others. This is important because it is these mid-level officials, despite their anonymity to the general public, who formulate government policy.
As this suggests, advising a candidate can propel a person’s career. Former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, is a case in point. When she first joined the George W. Bush campaign in 1999, she was a well-respected but rather obscure academic. Her government career at that point was limited to a brief stint at the National Security Council under Brent Scowcroft during the elder Bush’s Presidency. She hardly seemed destined to ascend to National Security Advisor; let alone Secretary of State. But the special bond she had with Bush, and the latter’s trust in her, won out over people who on paper were far more qualified than herself.
Rice ascent to the nation’s highest diplomatic post delineates a larger point. Namely, policy experts are a dime a dozen in the DC area. Like all people, Presidents want to surround themselves with people they are compatible with and believe they can trust.