This article appeared as the cover story of the March 2006 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, click here.
BOSTON — During last year’s St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in South Boston, Democratic Speaker of the House Salvatore DiMasi abandoned the good-natured roasting typical of the event to acidly kid about the airline tickets he saw sticking out of Governor Willard Mitt Romney’s pocket. “I don’t want to keep you too long. You can leave any time you want,” he said, to which the ever-unflappable Romney shot back, “I’ll be here until you get funny.” It was enough cool to make DiMasi lose his for a moment. “You being President of the United StatesO That’s a joke,” he sneered. A short time later, perhaps knowing somewhere deep down that he would still receive the biggest laugh of the breakfast, Romney chose to defuse rather than escalate the tension with his opening lines: “It’s great to be here in Iowa this morning — Oops, wrong speech. Sorry about that.”
Is DiMasi right? Is President Romney a joke? Now that Romney — who first burst onto the political scene with a kamikaze run at Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in 1994 before winning the governorship in 2002 — has opted to become a one-term governor presumably in search of becoming a two-term president, the answer will surely become manifest in due time. As his short reign in Massachusetts enters its twilight hours and the chattering classes begin debating his charisma, photogenic properties, and electability — in other words, all the things that have little bearing on the kind of leader he would actually be — it seems as worthwhile a time as any to take a look at the highs and lows of his leadership here in this bluest of blue states even as he sets his sights on something higher.
“I have to admit I did not think I was going to be in politics,” Romney said during a recent interview, leaning back into the couch of his State House office. Perhaps it was the setting or media conditioning, but sitting with the well-spoken, erudite governor it occurs to one that if presidential candidates could be manufactured like cars, The Romney — politically savvy, morally unchallenged (so far as we know now, but it’s not as if Ted Kennedy doesn’t have a good dirt-digging team), bank account flush with the fortune he made heading up the Bain Capital investment firm in the 1980s and '90s (helping catapult such national chains as Staples, Domino’s, and The Sports Authority into the general consciousness), yet still able to pull the “Aw, shucks” routine off flawlessly — would likely be a popular model.
“My dream was to be the head of a big automobile company,” he continued. “I hoped to be head of Ford or American Motors or General Motors, and that was what I thought my future would hold. When I moved to Massachusetts I got involved in the private sector. It was very exciting and I presumed I would always be in the private sector. Had I thought politics was in my future, I would not have chosen Massachusetts as the state of my residence. I would have stayed in Michigan where my Dad’s name was golden.”
MITT’S FATHER, OF COURSE, was George Romney, legendary head of the American Motor Corporation, a much-beloved three-term Michigan governor and the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development during Nixon’s first term. For a brief moment in 1967 he was also a presidential candidate; a moderate Republican candidate whom a 16-year-old Mitt had watched walk out of the Republican National Convention four years earlier to protest Barry Goldwater’s promise to be “extreme” in his “defense of liberty.” The national spotlight, however, did not befit George Romney, and an unfortunate slip of the tongue on the Lou Gordon show — he offhandedly claimed generals and diplomats in Vietnam had “brainwashed” him on a fact-finding mission — saw his aspirations immolated in a most unkind political firestorm. In The Making of the President 1968 Theodore White described the Michigan governor as “a missionary abandoned to the cannibals,” while recording for posterity Ohio Governor James Rhodes’s comment that Romney’s campaign was somewhat akin to “watching a duck try to make love to a football.”
“I missed my dad’s presidential race,” Romney said. “I was in France doing work for my church at the time. I received a lot of letters from my Dad about his experience, though. He was someone who was not driven by the ego experience or delusions of grandeur. He was someone who was devoted to his beliefs and wanted to offer a different course for the country. Therefore, he wasn’t personally dejected by the loss. He expressed his views, he lost, and he went on battling. I don’t think my dad considered it a bad experience. I think he considered it a great experienceO one where he was able to make an impact.”
But there were lessons this son destined to follow him into the public arena learned from his father. “One is to be careful in the words you select, because he got hung with one word, the word ‘brainwashing,’” Romney said. Kind as Romney was, during our interview he made sure to make clear more than once that he was tape recording the meeting as well. “Number two is something which I don’t know that I can agree with, but [my father] said, if you’re right too early, that’s not good in politics. I think you nonetheless have to be honest with people. I think we’re in such critical times as a nation that we can only afford candor.”
His father wasn’t Mitt Romney’s only role model. There was also his mother’s attempt to unseat liberal Michigan Senator Phil Hart when no one else in the Republican Party dared challenge him.
“I took a summer and came back to work on her campaign — drove her all over the state,” Romney recalled. “We did our best to get her elected. But going up against Phil Hart was a bit of a suicide mission. The only comparable race I can remember is my going up against Ted Kennedy.”
It’s been pointed out many times before, but it bears repeating: The great thing about running against Ted Kennedy is the instant hero status it bestows even when no one actually expects a win. Romney, not content simply to fall on his sword for the party, nevertheless gave Kennedy his closest race ever in the Bay State, winning 41 percent of the vote. So when it became clear in 2002 that Acting Governor Republican Jane Swift could not win the upcoming election, the Draft Mitt talk got heated fairly quickly. Barbara Anderson, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Limited Taxation, recalls leaving a message on Romney’s answering machine in Massachusetts while he was in Salt Lake City putting the kibosh on the financial and ethical scandals plaguing the 2002 Winter Olympics: “I know you’re busy with the Olympics right now, but when you get back please save the Commonwealth.” Such was his cachet even eight years after his Senate run. Swift stepped aside and Romney beat Democrat Shannon O’Brien easily.
“There was no one else out on the horizon and with the legislature almost entirely Democratic, we felt it was necessary to have a grown-up in the corner office,” Anderson explained. “And we were right to back him. He’s been a really good friend to the taxpayers.”
THERE ARE A FEW DIFFERENT WAYS to measure the success of an executive. There are the specific initiatives a governor proposes that may or may not become law. There are the initiatives that do not become law because of a governor’s opposition. Finally, there are those bills that arise indirectly from a governor’s agenda. In Massachusetts, the legislature is 85 percent in the hands of the Democratic Party. Though it may be able to reject a Romney initiative out of hand, oftentimes it will be forced to respond to a given issue out of fear of being hammered at the polls as unresponsive or obstructionist.
Romney can lay claim to many victories in his three years in office. He backed a ballot initiative during his 2002 campaign to discard the state’s bilingual language program in favor of English immersion. Taking a stand for school choice, he vetoed a bill that would have eliminated funding for Massachusetts’ surprisingly flourishing charter school system. He fought to double the amount of zoning for multi-family housing, and astronomical Boston rents have declined 12 percent as a result. He saved millions in the budget by eliminating duplication in government agencies. He even spearheaded a quixotic attempt to reinstate the death penalty that was defeated by a closer margin (99-53) in the Massachusetts House than one probably suspects.
Setting all that aside, the centerpiece of any national campaign would almost certainly be his balancing of the budget upon taking office without raising taxes despite a daunting $3 billion deficit. This, incidentally, would make for an interesting match-up if potential 2008 Democratic contender Mark Warner were to win the nomination on the other side, since on the stump the former Virginia governor trumpets his victory over a similarly large deficit — by passing the largest tax increase in the state’s history.
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