Last month, Mitt Romney tabbed Mike Leavitt to begin planning for his presidential transition. Pre-election transition planning is fraught with concerns about presumptuousness and skirmishes with those running the campaign, but it has increasingly become a major part of national policy making. If elected, a candidate must be prepared to make hundreds of personnel, policy and organizational decisions in just 11 weeks. Unfortunately most pre-election transition planning occurs quietly, leaving much room for speculation about what the candidate specifically has in mind for the day after a November victory. Three questions can help guide speculation about Mike Leavitt's work over the months leading up to the election.
First, how does Leavitt's background compare to previous transition directors?
There are a few transition types that precede Leavitt's choice. There is the "party loyalist," someone like Obama's transition lead, John Podesta, who had been Chief of Staff for President Bill Clinton and was a close advisor to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Podesta brought to the job deep connections with the Democratic Party, Capitol Hill and progressive policy wonks at his think tank the Center for American Progress. There is also the "candidate loyalist," someone like Clay Johnson, who then-Governor George W. Bush chose in 1999 to begin planning for his transition. Johnson had been a childhood friend of Bush and college roommate, before serving as Chief of Staff during Bush's time as governor. Johnson was a Republican, to be sure, but his affiliation to the candidate was his chief qualification.
Mike Leavitt draws on elements of these two types -- friendly with Romney and also a prominent Republican -- but his background is also unique. There has never been someone chosen to run pre-election transition activities with such a strong and public resume. As a former governor of Utah and Bush Administration Cabinet appointee (Secretary of Health and Human Services), Leavitt brings to the transition position more than just a staffers perspective: he has been a principal himself.
Leavitt's prominence also means that he has a well-established record of decisions and opinions. His views on health care policy have been thoroughly debated already, but as governor he also made hundreds of other policy decisions that may draw attention. Unlike previous transition leads, one would expect Leavitt's background will be under greater scrutiny from all sides. Much like John McCain's transition chief, William Timmons , who was derided for his registration as a lobbyist and questionable former clients. With a Supreme Court decision looming on the health care form law, Leavitt's work on implementing that law may feature in the campaign to a greater extent than the work of any of his predecessors.
Second, what is the scope of the pre-election transition efforts?
For much of U.S. history, there was little to no pre-election transition planning. Even in recent years, the scope of planning has varied. In 1980 and 1988, pre-election transition planning focused just on personnel and the basics of what would occur the day after the Inauguration. In 1972 and 1992, conversely, pre-election transition planning was more ambitious, the planners tasked with evaluating potential personnel appointments, but also developing policy proposals and preparing to execute a broad presidential agenda.
Thus far, Romney's campaign has remained ambiguous on many policy debates, preferring to remain silent on key details of what he would do on immigration and education. We do not know if his vague public statements about policy indicate that he is following the path of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush or whether more ambitious efforts are occurring discretely behind closed doors.
Third, how much access does the pre-election transition team have to the candidate (and the campaign chief)?
Most of candidate Romney's time during the next several months will be spent on campaigning, wooing donors, and convincing undecided voters to support him. At the same time, Leavitt will be busy planning.
In 1976, Jack Watson's pre-election transition work on behalf of Jimmy Carter was separated from the campaign and key campaign advisors. So too in 1992, Mickey Kantor planned for Bill Clinton's transition without a close day-to-day relationship with the campaigns "inner circle". In each case, this detachment resulted in conflict and harm to the eventual transition.
In 2000, Clay Johnson worked seamlessly with the Bush campaign team during the pre-election time period. This close relationship permitted the Bush team to be credited with a well-orchestrated transition despite the fact that the Florida recount meant that they had only half of the time of previous transition teams.
Leavitt has been described as a close, trusted friend and colleague of Romney. They share a gubernatorial background and a home-state affiliation to Utah. Does this indicate that pre-election transition activities will be closely aligned with the campaign? Will Leavitt be given regular access to the candidate and others running the campaign? Or will this fiercely contested campaign mean that Leavitt's work is shielded from Romney?