Had Mitt Romney won the presidential election on November 6, Tevi Troy would be busy working right now as director of domestic policy on Romney's transition team. Fate had other ideas, though.
Troy, who served as special policy adviser to Romney's presidential campaign, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute think tank. An Orthodox Jew who grew up in Queens, Troy has served in a number of government positions over the past 15 years, including deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in President George W. Bush's administration. At one point he was also the White House's lead adviser on healthcare, labor, education, transportation, immigration, crime, veterans affairs, and welfare.
Troy is also the author of two books: "Intellectuals and the American Presidency: Philosophers, Jesters, or Technicians?" (2002) and "What Washington Read, Eisenhower Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House" (forthcoming, 2013).
The Jewish Press recently spoke with him.
The Jewish Press: What exactly did you do for Romney?
Troy: I advised on a host of issues, including health policy, domestic policy, and also Jewish issues. I made TV and radio appearances, spoke to the media on Governor Romney's behalf, and even debated Jack Lew, White House chief of staff, at a Cleveland shul a few days before the campaign ended.
What was Romney like as a person?
Well, it's hard to say what he's like on a trip to Disney World or something like that.
In terms of policy, he's very bright and knowledgeable and picks up stuff very quickly. I was in a series of policy meetings he had in Washington where he met with experts on various issues; I headed the healthcare briefing. He walked into that room with no notes, spoke off the cuff very knowledgably about healthcare, and then took questions from experts and responded knowledgably, skillfully, with facts and figures.
How many times did you meet him?
Not that many. Three, four, or five.
Why do you think he lost?
It's very hard to beat an incumbent president. A president has four years to prepare for an election campaign. Only one incumbent Democrat has lost over the last century, and that was Jimmy Carter.
I also think the torrent of negative ads that hit Governor Romney over the summer at a time when he did not have the funding to respond was very damaging. Finally, the American people tend to want to give first-term presidents a second chance.
Some people think his toned-down performance in the second and third debates may have hurt him as well.
I don't think he toned it down at all. I think he was equally good in the second debate, and in the third debate I thought [Romney] had the right strategy, which is you don't want to get in an ugly brawl over foreign policy when you're trying to show the American people that you're ready to lead.
But it seems to me that we're in a more knuckle-baring era, and maybe the American people do want to see that kind of fighting in a foreign policy debate.
How would you compare Romney to George W. Bush?
It's hard to say because I spent more time with Bush. Bush was very good at getting to the heart of an issue very quickly. He asked very tough questions in policy meetings. He also seemed to have more of an easygoing manner than Romney. He was very good with people – the backslapping, "hey, I'm your buddy" kind of thing. That's a real skill in politics.
In other words, Romney is, as some people argue, a bit stiff.
I didn't say that at all. I didn't say anything against Romney. I'm just praising Bush for being a very good retail politician.
One of the reasons many Orthodox Jews voted for Romney was Obama's alleged anti-Israel bias. Yet, some people argue that Obama's position vis-à-vis Israel is identical to Bush's; that Bush, too, supported a two-state solution.
I don't buy that at all. First of all, President Bush worked much better with the Israelis. Second of all, President Bush supported a two-state solution, but with the Palestinians having corresponding obligations. And third of all, President Bush did not want to have preconditions before getting to the negotiating table, whereas President Obama presumed to draw what the final lines were in his speech before Netanyahu's visit a couple of years ago.
I think those are real and significant differences. I also think there were clearly rough and cold relations between the two countries for at least the first three years of the Obama administration, and I don't think any fair observer can claim otherwise.
To what do you attribute the administration's colder attitude toward Israel?
I don't know. [Political pundit] Peter Beinart argues that Obama didn't really know a lot about Israel growing up in Indonesia and Hawaii, and that his first real education on Israel came from some very liberal Jews in Chicago. That's one theory.
Another theory is that he came to the White House and thought he was going to reset relations with the whole world. He thought if he was colder toward Israel, the Arab world would be warmer towards us.
In your upcoming book, What Washington Read, Eisenhower Watched, and Obama Tweeted, you write that Obama is unusually well versed in pop culture. Can you elaborate?
He watched a lot of television growing up and continues to watch television to an extent that I think is unusual for a president. "ESPN SportsCenter" is one of his favorite shows. He also likes "The Wire"; "Modern Family," which he watches with Michelle; "Homeland"; "Boardwalk Empire"; and "Mad Men." So he does watch a lot of TV.
I'm not a prude about pop culture. But I also think there are great ideas that have created our civilization that our founders were immersed in – great ideas about what leads to good government and the proper role of government in society. I think we as a nation benefited from the founders' immersion in those ideas, and I think presidents should at least take some time to focus on these issues as well.
Your first book, Intellectuals and the American Presidency, was published in 2002 and hence obviously did not include anything on Obama. If you had to add an Obama chapter to that book, what would be in it?
Well, I effectively did add an Obama chapter. I wrote a long article for National Affairs about Bush and Obama. I argued that Bush tried really hard – he read a great deal – to reach out to intellectuals, but no matter what he did he couldn't quite get their approval. Obama, on the other hand, doesn't even seem to try that hard. As I said, he watches a lot of TV and there are some indications that he doesn't read as much as his fans suggest he does. He was once asked what he was reading and he said he barely has time to floss and watch SportsCenter. Nevertheless, the intellectuals seem to fall all over him and praise him at every opportunity.
You worked in government for 12 years, Jack Lew is currently Obama's chief of staff, Joseph Lieberman has been a U.S. senator for 24 years…. Are we seeing more Orthodox Jews than ever before in government?
It's hard to [know for sure], but I think there are more doors open for Orthodox Jews in politics than ever before and you see them appearing in senior positions.
Is that good, bad, significant, insignificant…?
I think it's a good thing. I think it's good for the Orthodox community to have its perspectives heard and that people don't just see Jews as a secular community. I also think it's good for America. Folding in different voices and perspectives is one of our strengths, so I want to see that continue.
Was your Orthodox observance ever an issue in your years in government?
There were times I couldn't work because of Shabbat or holidays, but for the most part I found people very accommodating….
When I worked in the White House, I had to be at work at such an early time that I couldn't daven at home, so I had to daven in the White House with my tefillin. A couple of times people walked in on me, but that's fine.
So yeah, when you're an observant Jew, it's always an issue to some extent in that it's a daily part of your life, but it was never a deterrent or an obstacle.
Fifty years ago, Orthodox Jews generally did not wear yarmulkes at work. Today, most do. What was your practice while working for Bush and Romney?
It's an interesting question. I did not wear a kippah at the time, but now I do full-time. A lot of it has to do with my kids. I just couldn't really explain why I don't wear it in the office. When I was growing up – I went to Ramaz – it seemed that people didn't wear a kippah at the office. Now I think we're just in a different phase.
So you wore a yarmulke while working for Romney?
Yes, including when I met with him, when I went on TV, etc.
When did you make the switch?
I actually started towards the end of the Bush administration. I brought everyone in for a family photo with President Bush and the kids were wearing kippot, so I wore a kippah too. And then I would bring my kids to work occasionally and in some ways it was more awkward to take it off with my kids there.
You know, at what point do you put it on and at what point do you take it off? It just didn't seem to make sense to me anymore. Do you do it when you get into the car? Do you do it when you get on the subway? Do you do it when you get off the subway? I just couldn't figure out the rationale for it.
And, you know, fortunately we live in a great country where there's relatively little anti-Semitism. I've had no repercussions from it. Very few gentiles even mentioned it.
Your brother is a presidential historian at McGill University who, like you, writes books on American history. Is there any sibling rivalry between the two of you?
No, he's written 10 books, so I'll never catch up to him. He's a great prolific historian and I'm honored to have him as a brother.
How did an Orthodox Jewish family from Queens manage to produce two distinguished buffs of American history?
My father taught American history at a public school in Queens, and we both had a love for it.