By most accounts, Mike Leavitt, the former Utah governor and Bush administration official tapped by Mitt Romney to run his transition team if he is elected president is the kind of unflappable, low-profile smart guy politicians dream of surrounding themselves with. And though Leavitt is a cool head, his political past includes a few of the awkward gaffes that have sometimes veered Romney himself off course.
In Leavitt, Romney has tapped a kindred spirit: a smart, serious, ex-governor who has tripped himself up on occasion.
But gaffes have by no means been the hallmark of Leavitt’s political career. In 2003, when President George W. Bush tapped Leavitt to take over the EPA after Christine Todd Whitman’s tumultuous stint, the Washington Post reported he was chosen specifically for his ability to maintain calm waters.
“One senior Republican official called Leavitt a ‘bureaucrat’s bureaucrat,’ who would keep the EPA out of the headlines,” according to the Post. A year later, Bush again enlisted Leavitt to be a quiet, competent one-man cleanup crew after a string of bad headlines. Embarrassed by the fallout created by nomination NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerik to head the Department Of Homeland Security, the president again turned to Leavitt, nominating him to lead the Department of Heath and Human Services amid public outcry that Bush’s nominee-selection process was broken. Descriptions of Levitt at that time included “loyalist,” “extraordinarily thoughtful” and, once again, quiet.
“He does not have an incendiary personality,” former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot (R), Bush’s 2004 campaign chair, told the Washington Post upon Leavitt’s selection to lead HHS.
Leavitt’s ability to be noncontroversial appears central to Romney’s decision to place him in his inner circle. Levitt has been “a calming influence at critical times” to Romney, according to Politico. The Romneys trust him in part because he’s “100 percent in it for Mitt, no secret agenda for himself,” someone in the Romney camp told Politico.
Calm, cool and tempered also sum up Romney, who during the often chaotic Republican primary talked up his ability to keep things serious even when the politics around him veered toward silliness. But Romney, more than any errant staffers, often caused his campaign’s most awkward moments, stumbling at precisely the wrong times.
Leavitt knows what this is like. During his 10-year gubernatorial tenure in Utah, Leavitt cruised to reelection and enjoyed wide public support. But he infamously stuck his foot in it when he took what appeared to be a soft line on polygamy. Navigating the issue of polygamy isn’t necessary for most governors, but it is a political reality for Utah politicians, and Leavitt illustrated exactly how to get it wrong. In a July 1998 press conference, Leavitt said people who practice polygamy (outlawed by Utah’s state Constitution) were “mostly good people.” The line predictably drew national attention, even as he tried to staunch the backlash by backing off the statements. He publicly expressed frustration that the story had derailed his legislative priorities.
“After several minutes of questions on the polygamy subject, Leavitt shook his head a little and seemed irritated,” the Deseret News reported. “‘There are a number of important things going on in this state,” he said, ‘like freeways, education’ and other items.”
Romney expressed similar frustration when the media fixated on his own slip-ups and when his opponents’ antics steered the primary campaign away from economic issues, where Romney is most comfortable.
Levitt’s calm demeanor won’t help with one campaign problem, though. Romney’s camp has been forced to soothe fears among conservatives terrified that the moderate Leavitt’s proximity to Romney signals the former Massachusetts governor won’t dismantle Obama’s health care law as he’s promised. To those already worried that Romney’s record as the only other politician to sign a health care reform package like Obama’s into law makes him an unconvincing advocate for the national law’s destruction, Leavitt’s spot in the campaign has done little to soothe their fears.
Romney and Leavitt both know what it’s like to be the smart guy in the room who nonetheless stumbles occasionally. Now it looks like the team of quiet men is going through one of the loud fights they both try to shy away from — this time, together.