Since Lanhee Chen joined the Romney campaign in March last year, his public pronouncements have been liberally seasoned with snark. Tweeting about Newt Gingrich during the first Florida debate, he wrote, “Thanks for explaining why you were forced to resign in disgrace, Mr. Speaker.” In April, he tweeted: “[David Axelrod] says Obama to be judged on his record. Like record high prices for gas?” In another tweet, he ridiculed “Obama’s ‘pretty please’ foreign policy.” And in a blog post on economic policy, Chen couldn’t resist a few personal potshots: “The President will have all year to elaborate on how his time as a community organizer helped him understand the implications of tax increases for investment decisions,” he wrote. “He can also describe for voters how his law school lecturing duties showed him the extraordinary economic potential of the nation’s energy resources.”
Chen is not the only member of the Romney team whose qualifications appear to include a set of brass knuckles. Romney’s pugnacious adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, for instance, is a proud alumnus of Boston’s take-no-prisoners tabloid culture. But Chen is the campaign’s policy director, a position generally occupied by more wonky types who refrain from day-to-day brawling.
And yet that hasn’t stopped him from routinely indulging in some fact-free mudslinging. In January, he characterized Obama’s tenure as “an unmitigated disaster” that has brought about “one of the most anti-competitive, anti-business-friendly environments in the entire world.” A few months later, he asserted that the president has a point of view that “punishes success.” So what is Lanhee Chen’s role in Romneyworld—egghead or hothead?
CHEN IS, by all accounts, brilliant. The 33-year-old son of Taiwanese immigrants from California’s San Gabriel Valley, he holds four degrees from Harvard—a bachelor’s, a law degree, a master’s, and a Ph.D. He worked on his master’s while shuttling between classes in Cambridge and a job in Washington. “It’s in his personality to always be doing lots of things at once,” says Bom Kim, a college friend and grad-school roommate. Kim, a Democrat, recalls having “terrific late-night conversations” about politics with Chen.
After obtaining his first degree in 1999, Chen moved to DC, where he worked at a lobbying firm and then as a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, where he produced a prescient study on the potential negative effect of Republican Medicare reforms on private health care. After a stint as a senior aide in Bush’s Health and Human Services department, Chen served as Romney’s head domestic policy adviser in 2008. In 2010, he worked for California gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner, for whom he wrote policy briefs outlining harsh plans for immigration enforcement. After Poizner lost, Chen went on to co-author a well-regarded paper for American Politics Research that showed the need for the next GOP presidential nominee to appeal to young and Hispanic voters.
Colleagues describe Chen as possessing an almost pathological work ethic. Tevi Troy, Chen’s superior from his days in the Bush administration, bet me that every single person I spoke to would lead by describing his smarts. (They did.) Bob Moffit, the senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation who hired Chen, called him “a dynamo,” while Sidney Verba, Chen’s Ph.D adviser at Harvard for his dissertation—which examined how judicial elections affect the law—remembers him as one of his most outstanding students. Kevin Hassett, an American Enterprise Institute economist advising the Romney campaign, compared Chen to “a Jason Furman, or a Peter Orszag-type,” saying, “He’s not a person who’s going to be easy to overwhelm.”
Chen is chiefly responsible for overseeing the policy team that briefs Romney and spins out proposals, such as “paycheck protection,” a law which would prevent unions from automatically collecting dues from workers’ pay for political spending. He also makes regular media appearances to explain Romney’s policy positions. Sporting a haircut that makes the top of his head look almost like a perfect square, Chen maintains a crisp, business-like manner on camera that is at marked odds with his Twitter persona. In mid-February, with Mitt Romney trailing Rick Santorum, he appeared on Fox Business’s “Willis Report” to discuss the candidate’s tax plans. When prodded to point to something “exciting” about Romney’s proposals, Chen coolly responded, “You’re not going to hear gimmicks from this campaign.”
Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, says Chen has made frequent trips to the Beltway to hobnob with conservative policy types. Recently, Chen attended one of Norquist’s weekly Wednesday meetings, as well as a smaller lunch afterwards with the heads of right-wing economic groups. To Norquist, it was clear that Chen had one foot in the policy world and one foot firmly planted in the political arena. “Some policy guys go, ‘I do policy. … I don’t need to listen because I’ve already read the books.’ Lanhee is both a policy guy and a coalition builder.”
But whether Chen's brainpower has put the campaign on solid footing, policy-wise, is another question. Among the Republicans who were vying for this year’s nomination, Romney was more of a policy enthusiast than most. He championed health care reform in Massachusetts, of course, but was also a keen advocate of “smart growth” as governor, instituting a series of technocratic reforms intended to discourage driving and promote efficient land use. Nonetheless, there are some noticeable holes in the policies coming out of his campaign. Josh Barro, a moderate conservative economist who writes for Forbes, points out that Romney has not issued any proposals for the depressed housing market or taken a position on monetary policy. Instead, the campaign’s offerings have been limited to “the standard Republican policy prescriptions … and they don’t really have specific policies for the problems we face now.” Of his 150-some page economic treatise, Peter Suderman recently wrote in Reason, “it’s sufficiently thorough in its background analysis, yet aspirationally vague when it comes to proposing action items.”
Instead of churning out new ideas, Chen appears to be focusing his energies on assailing Obama’s policies—and to that end, he isn’t shy about distorting the facts. He erroneously called an Obama-backed tax increase for high earners “the biggest tax increase in American history.” Then, in mid-April, Chen went to war with PolitiFact, which had given a rating of “mostly false” to a Romney spokesperson’s statement that 92 percent of jobs lost since Obama took office had belonged to women. The assertion was technically true but wildly misleading. For one thing, as PolitiFact explained, “Obama cannot be held entirely accountable for the employment picture on the day he took office.” For another, “by choosing figures from January 2009, months into the recession, the statement ignored the millions of jobs lost before then, when most of the job loss fell on men. In every recession, men are the first to take the hit, followed by women.” Nevertheless, for the next week, Chen hammered the “unassailable” 92 percent figure in interviews, while calling PolitiFact’s work “Obama-for-America spin” and demanding a retraction.
When I asked the campaign about Chen’s combative style, Saul praised his “purpose and poise” in an email, and noted that given his intellect, “We would be remiss if we did not use his voice both to critique President Obama’s failed record and to share Governor Romney’s policies and vision.” Most of the other people I spoke to attributed the discrepancy between Chen’s academic reputation and his no-holds-barred attitude to the ugly reality of politics. Even his former colleagues from academia weren’t perturbed when I described remarks of his that rose to the level of intellectual dishonesty. “The border between honest and dishonest politics ... these days is an unclear one,” says Verba, Chen’s dissertation adviser. “If everything he said was honest, and detached from partisan views, then among people putting out material for political campaigns, he would be a minority of one.”
Molly Redden is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.