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These days Romney goes so far as to call his lack of Republican firepower in the legislature “a blessing in disguise” that has created an environment where “the only way to get things done is on a participatory, collaborative basis.” Is this all just a roundabout way of making a George W. Bush-esque promise to change the tone of the partisan debate?
“I can’t tell you how that would work in Washington,” Romney said in pure soundbite-ese. “I think most people are frustrated with the politics of pointing fingers and ascribing blame and simply wish people could get together and get the job done.”
Romney’s critics point to comments he’s made in front of audiences in more conservative states — most famously he told a South Carolina audience, “Being a conservative Republican in Massachusetts is a bit like being a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention” — as evidence that he is insincere on this point. Even some of his allies are hard pressed to offer an adequate defense.
“The Massachusetts bashing does get a little uncomfortable for those of us who have chosen to work with the governor,” Grogan, of the Boston Foundation, said. “Usually governors are crowing about their state’s accomplishments. Those of us who follow the political complexities of a moderate New Englander getting the Republican nomination understand where some of that might be coming from, but it still is a bit jarring to see when you open up the morning paper.”
“There’s no question I do love jokes,” Romney answered when queried on this point. “Indicating that there are very few conservative Republicans in Massachusetts, I do not think is a surprise to anyone inside or outside of Massachusetts and is in no way an indictment of the state. If anything, it’s a recognition that I have to do a better job of recruiting Republicans.”
As for Democrats’ complaints about the amount of out-of-state traveling he’s done, Romney refuses to repent. “My guess is my travel outside of the state has been far less than either Michael Dukakis or Senator Kerry,” he said, adding, “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and I would encourage my Democratic friends to remember that.”
So, to be clear, did Romney — who came here in 1975 to seek degrees from both Harvard Business and Law schools — pursue the governorship out of some Machiavellian plan to attain higher office, or does he love the state he leads?
“We’ve lived here now 34 years, raised all five of our sons here, and paid a mountain of taxes here,” Romney noted. “You don’t do that unless you enjoy the state and the economic, social, and cultural opportunities which it provides.”
NOW THAT A ROMNEY CANDIDACY seems ever more likely, the debate has begun over what role his religion will play in a presidential race. The prejudices that plague Mormons can’t be far from this former missionary’s mind. One of the specific reasons Romney gives in his book Turnaround for his decision to take the helm of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City after the bid scandal was the “implied association of the scandal with the standing and character of the state and, further, with the Mormon Church. Those who thought us Mormons to be too goody-two-shoes felt confirmed in their suspicions. I remember thinking what a shame it was that the entire community was being given a black eye by the seemingly unscrupulous actions of a flamboyant few.”
The conventional wisdom on this point suggests it will be more albatross than boon, especially with increasingly influential evangelicals. Oft-cited poll numbers show approximately 17 percent of the electorate would not vote for a Mormon. Romney has been dismissive of those numbers, saying they relate more to a nameless, faceless candidate than to himself. He’s already been elected in a heavily Catholic state, fueling his belief that voters want their leaders to come from a place of religious conviction — not a specific church. Reverend Jeffrey Brown of the Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, who headed up the refugee commission for Romney after Hurricane Katrina, concurred.
“The governor has the instinct to know that government can address some of the physical and social needs of traumatized people, but there are spiritual needs government simply cannot get its hands around,” Brown said. “Mitt Romney understands and respects the differences between those needs. That’s something that was really clear after Hurricane Katrina, but is also something that I believe has informed a lot of what he does.”
Still, Baptist minister on board or no, it is hard to deny that Romney has had a tough time of it with religious conservatives in Massachusetts.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that Governor Romney must have a twin brother,” Brian Camenker, a prominent Massachusetts social conservative and head of the Article 8 Alliance, said. “I’ve listened to him for three years here and then I hear what he says in South Carolina and there’s no two ways about it: This can’t be the same guy. I’d love to hear him make one of those speeches around here.” John Haskins, associate director of the Parents’ Rights Coalition who has written extensively on what he believes are Romney’s failings in the culture wars, is less charitable, branding the governor a “placebo-conservative,” and saying, “I believe that Romney is an incredibly weak and gullible man. I believe that he confuses niceness and agreeability with character.”
Part of this animus is driven by the abortion issue. During our interview Romney reiterated to me the same position he has made in recent years on the stump and in op-ed pieces in the Boston Globe: That he is now pro-life, but believes, as he wrote in the Globe, that, “while the nation remains so divided over abortion” that “the states, through the democratic process, should determine their own abortion laws and not have them dictated by judicial mandate.” Therefore, because Massachusetts “is decidedly pro-choice, I have respected the state’s democratically held view. I have not attempted to impose my own views on the pro-choice majority.”
Practically and pragmatically, that’s a statement of fact, and, coupled with his opposition to funding stem cell research, Romney’s conversion to an unambiguous pro-lifer might have flown had the Massachusetts Supreme Court not handed down a decision legalizing gay marriage in November 2003. From that point on, nothing short of sending the National Guard in to disband the court would have salved the anger of many social conservatives and a harsher light was shone on all Romney’s social stands. His insistence that Justices of the Peace comply with the decision and perform same-sex marriages only further inflamed these elements, despite his testimony on Capitol Hill in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act and his authorship of several high-profile op-eds in where he stressed opposition to same-sex marriages while responsibly stressing the importance of “the defense of marriage” not becoming “an attack on gays, on singles, or on nontraditional couples.”
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