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The Mop-Up, with Lanhee Chen
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The Mop-Up, with Lanhee Chen

'I think our society and our politics are better for it when there is that substance because, fundamentally, I want elections to be about ideas.'

We’ve talked about a lot of different aspects of campaign world—data and digital, legal, communications, direct mail, debates, conventions, etc. But there’s been one glaring omission. After all, what are campaigns for if not to win for the purpose of implementing your preferred policy goals? So when we talk about campaigns, why do we so rarely talk about policy anymore?

I’ve worked with some great policy directors—I sat next to now-Congressman Chip Roy who was the policy director for John Cornyn’s first Senate campaign in 2002. But when I imagine the  Hollywood archetype for the “campaign policy director,” it is and always will be Lanhee Chen

Lanhee and I overlapped at Harvard Law School and we both worked on Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. But that may imply that we were ever in the same league. Lanhee already had his PhD in political science by the time I met him, and even in his mid-20s, it was clear he was a deeply thoughtful and careful thinker far beyond his years. 

He was in the policy shop for the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign, Domestic Policy Director for Romney’s 2008 bid, policy director and senior strategist for 2012, and an outside policy advisor to Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. And in 2014 and 2018, he helped the National Republican Senatorial Committee as well.

He’s now at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute and advises global corporations and private equity investors. In short: Lanhee is incredibly smart, sure, but he is valued because he is thoughtful in the broadest sense of the term. Lanhee is able to synthesize problems across disciplines and to translate from the language of think tanks to the debate stage or the boardroom, which is a rare skill. 

But does policy even matter in campaigns anymore? 

Sarah: You were the policy director for Romney in 2012. Just tell people what that day-to-day job looked like.

Lanhee: I think there’s a couple different elements of this that are important. First of all, even though I think the demand for detailed policy on campaigns has faded a bit since 2012, which is the campaign that I worked most extensively on, I still do think that voters want [to know] and good candidates should want to articulate what it is they’re going to do if they’re elected. And I think that’s still a part of voters’ decision calculus in terms of whether to vote for a candidate or or vote against a candidate. 

And good candidates who want to govern well will almost always want to lay out a platform, and so part of it is helping the candidate think through the things they want to do, helping them shape, and understand the implications of the public policies they’ll pursue if they’re elected. So that’s certainly part of it, which is sort of forming the platform for a candidate and for a campaign. 

And then there’s another part of it which is basically just responding to stuff that’s happening in the world. I can’t tell you how many times during the Romney campaign something would happen. There’d be an episode abroad, or something would happen domestically, or we’ve got some news about the economy and the candidate needs to figure out, you know, what do I want to say about this, how do I respond to this? Policy on campaigns is also about helping candidates respond to what’s happening in real time, to give them a sense of what it is that they need to be thinking about, the decisions they need to come to, and helping them craft their thinking around what’s happening in real time. 

And then the last piece of it is, there are just events during the campaign where policy support is really important. Debates are sort of the one that people talk about most often because, particularly in a general election presidential campaign, debates can be pretty substantive. There can be pretty serious conversations about what it is candidates plan to do. So a campaign policy team and policy shop can be very helpful in terms of developing some thinking about what it is that a candidate needs to do to be successful in those events.

So that’s sort of it in a nutshell, but it’s some combination of those things, and no two days tend to be the same.

Sarah: At what point did you join the 2012 campaign in the primary? Like how soon did Mitt Romney need a policy director?

Lanhee: I was approached to come back and help to begin to organize the policy shop for a potential presidential run in late 2010. So I was hired very early in January 2011 as the policy director for Mitt Romney’s Free and Strong America PAC. And then that eventually transitioned to a presidential campaign later in the year. So I actually started back with Romney relatively early, and I had been the chief domestic policy adviser to Mitt Romney when he ran the first time around so we had a relationship from his first campaign for president in 2008.

Sarah: You and I were kind of Romney lifers. 

Lanhee: Yeah. Still are.

Sarah: Damn right. Ok, so how big was the policy shop at the height of the 2012 campaign?

Lanhee: It grew. In the primary, there were six of us, so it was a pretty hearty small group and a couple of full time volunteers. By the time we got to the general election at the height, you know, we probably had between 50 and 60 people working full time on policy at headquarters in Boston. And then I like to say we had a cast of thousands who were very supportive in one way or another. They were experts in a very specific thing like the Law of the Sea treaty, and we could reach out to them and they could answer questions if we ever got a question about the Law of the Sea treaty, which he actually did on the campaign trail. But in terms of full time staff, it’s a relatively small staff compared to how big the political team was or the communications team, but we had a whole lot of different responsibilities by the time we got to the peak of the campaign.

Sarah: How many times are you sitting in the room, and it’s the senior team of hardened political operatives, and you’re saying ‘look, this policy is complicated and there’s nuance’ and wonky wonky wonky. And you have the communication director or the pollster saying, ‘Lanhee, that’s sweet that you think we can have a think tank salon dinner about this, but this is a political campaign and it’s a bare knuckle brawl and policy needs to take a backseat to politics.’

Lanhee: Yeah, it’s a great question. So I learned that lesson very early on. By the time I get to working on this 2012 campaign, I’d done two presidentials before, obviously the ’08 campaign and then the Bush Cheney reelect in ’04. And so I sort of had my education in the relationship between policy and the rest of the campaign, so by the time I got to be policy director I knew the drill. 

In the words of one political strategist from a past campaign: “You know, I see your mouth moving but all I hear is ‘blah blah blah.’” He meant it in the most affectionate way possible, I suppose, but you know there is this push and pull that happens on a campaign between those who are thinking about how to communicate on policy, how to strategize about policy, and then the person responsible for keeping the campaign promises and the person responsible for formulating policy. 

And what I often found is, it went best when I didn’t try to sit there and give everyone a tutorial on tax policy, for example. But what I often tried to do was to identify for my colleagues, ‘here are the three or four most politically salient points that I would draw out from our policy.’ And that really helped to set the conversation in the right direction, as opposed to being reactive. Because the worst thing is you’ve got this elegantly crafted tax policy that ends up as a 100-page document and the ad maker needs 72 words.

And the way that you compress that ends up being a lot about can you proactively go and identify ‘here’s the three or four things that I think you should talk about that are accurate and that we’ll be able to actually do in government.’

That too is something I should have mentioned earlier, which is, I think the good policy advisors are those who say to a candidate, ‘I know you want to say this because it’s catchy in a campaign. But let me tell you if you win, you’re never going to be able to do this.’ And what is that line between what you want to say and what you actually can do in government, I think that’s another important responsibility of the policy director. 

But you know I had a lot of back and forth with strategists and ad makers and communications directors about ‘here is what I think we can say,’ and there has to be a mutual respect there, too. They have to respect that what I’m trying to do is to advance the campaign and protect the candidate, and I have to respect that what they’re doing is they’re trying to maximize whatever it is that they’re responsible for. So I think if you have that mutual respect it actually works out pretty well.

Sarah: Well, and you’ve highlighted something I think is incredibly important for a policy director that isn’t always appreciated. The best policy directors, in some ways, are wearing more hats than anyone else on the campaign. First of all, you have to be conversant in every area of policy and be able to talk to experts in all those areas—running your mini think tank in the campaign. You have to speak politics, and you have to earn the respect of political operatives. And you’ve got to wear the post-election, this-stuff-has-to-be-implemented-if-we-win hat as well. So I think that’s what has made you probably one of the most well-known and well-respected policy directors from any presidential campaign in recent history. Because you executed all three of those very well. 

I’m curious how much you think that the candidate matters. Mitt Romney was a nerd’s nerd. Did that give you credibility within the campaign? The operatives had to listen to you because the nerd candidate was listening to his fellow nerd?

Lanhee: Well, first of all it’s, it’s very nice of you to say. I do think the relationship with the candidate is really important, and it’s a relationship built on mutual trust and respect. And I do think that others in the campaign sort of see that relationship and sort of see what it is that the candidate is hearing and listening to, and they take their cues from that.

I’ve had friends and I’ve counseled others in situations where they don’t feel like they have a relationship of trust with their principal, and that’s a hard one, because then it’s very easy for others to undercut you. I generally had really positive experiences working on campaigns, but I will say campaigns can be a really tough environment. They can be very competitive and cutthroat and people are trying to get as much time with the candidate as they can. So having that relationship, building that relationship is important. 

And the most important thing I emphasize to people who are thinking about doing these kinds of jobs in politics is that being the policy director or being a director of any division or campaign is really about a process. You’re trying to run a process that’s effective to get to the right answers for whatever it is: What’s the right statement we got to put out, what’s the right number of people we got to have on the ground to mobilize our vote in New Hampshire, or what is the right tax policy?

And you only know what you know, and you have to be able to say what you don’t know. And you have to not be afraid to ask for help. At the end of the day, being a policy director or being a comms director or whatever. It’s about running an effective process to get to the right answer, and that’s not nearly as glamorous I think as people make it out to be.

Sarah: Oh man, but you’re singing my song. I am all about process. And I think so many people think it’s a shoot from the hip, live in the moment type job. And it’s like, ‘oh god, that’s the exact opposite.’

Lanhee: Yeah, that’s right. The worst thing you can do is to pretend like you know and to give the wrong answer. Particularly as a policy person. You know there are lots of times where Romney would ask me a question and I didn’t know the answer. And you have to be able to say, ‘I don’t know, sir, but I will get you the right answer,’ and have a process that enables me to get to the right answer quickly and effectively. But I know lots of people—lots of young people in particular, students of mine—who want to do this, and their instinct is ‘I’ve got to be able to give them an answer.’ And you’re much worse off giving the wrong answer than an ‘I don’t know.’

Sarah: That was a lesson that was very hard for me to learn for all the reasons that you’re saying, and I’m so grateful that I had a boss who beat that tendency out of me. It is one of the worst habits of any young person. 

So what do you make of the Trump 2016 campaign versus the Hillary Clinton 2016 campaign in terms of the role that policy played?

Lanhee: Yeah, I mean two very different kinds of efforts. Jake Sullivan, who is now the National Security Adviser, was Hillary’s policy director. In 2016, he and I had a long conversation about this after the campaign. And he said, they ran a very traditional campaign and a traditional policy shop. They tried to put out as much detail as they could. And I think they felt that it was just a fundamentally different campaign cycle. 

And on the Trump side they didn’t have a policy shop; they didn’t have the same kind of operation. They had some ideas that they put at the center of their campaign to be sure, and they had a lot of infrastructure around them supporting what they were trying to do, but they didn’t have the same policy apparatus as let’s say we did in 2012 on the Romney campaign or McCain did in 2008. So it was a very different kind of campaign to be sure, and it worked because it was a different kind of candidate and, as a result, they didn’t need that traditional structure.

Sarah: If they didn’t need a policy shop and defeated one of the largest campaign policy shops in history probably, how will that translate in the future? Are you a dinosaur now?

Lanhee: I really hope that there is still a demand. And I think at the presidential level, there is still an appetite for understanding what a leader is going to do if they’re elected. And I actually think in many large statewide campaigns—like a California governor’s race or a Texas governor’s race—there is going to be a demand for policy and a demand for people being able to articulate what it is that they’re going to do. I think our society and our politics are better for it when there is that substance, because fundamentally, I want elections to be about ideas. I want them to be about a choice between different ideas and different visions. It’s really hard to do that without a policy shop.

Sarah: Fun fact: you, me, and Katie Biber Chen all went to Harvard Law School and all knew each other before the ’08 Romney campaign. She was the general counsel on the Romney campaign, you were the policy director. I was nobody. But this is the funny part: Lanhee Chen and Katie Biber Chen are not married, never dated as far as I know. Fast forward to 2021, and just last week, I got yet another text message from someone who has worked in campaigns for a decade—including the ’12 campaign—and just realized y’all aren’t married.

Lanhee: So for the record, we never dated. We never will. And it is funny because we just talked the other day. She’ll text me and say, ‘so-and-so thinks we’re married.’ 

Sarah: I don’t know why but it brings me so much joy.

Lanhee: It’s just so funny because she’s such a good friend, and we’ve had a chance to go through war together. And you kind of laugh it off, but you do realize, like, come on man, it’s been nine years.

Sarah: And also I mean Chen isn’t exactly some weird last name like Isgur.

Lanhee: Like one of the most common last names in the world as it turns out. Yeah.

Sarah Isgur is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in northern Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she had worked in every branch of the federal government and on three presidential campaigns. When Sarah is not hosting podcasts or writing newsletters, she’s probably sending uplifting stories about spiders to Jonah, who only pretends to love all animals.