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.
“It struck me that there were three courses to take; two easy, one hard,” Romney said of his fiscal crisis. “Those courses included simply raising taxes or alternatively, borrowing money. I rejected both of those as being too hard on working families and too punitive to future generations. Instead, I chose the third, more difficult course, which was finding ways to reduce spending, cutting back government, and using every vehicle imaginable to restore fiscal discipline, allowing us in the future to invest in education, healthcare, and the environment and job creation.”
This storyline is not universally accepted. Both the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and the Cato Institute put the deficit at something more like $2 billion, and the latter awarded Romney only a “C” in its annual Governors’ Fiscal Policy Report Card, noting, “His first budget, presented under a cloud of a $2 billion deficit, balanced the budget with some spending cuts, but a $500 million increase in various fees was the largest component of the budget fix.”
Romney doesn’t give an inch defending his fiscal legacy, though. “No question but that we have structurally reduced our spending and our budget is generating surpluses,” he said adding, “We have reduced taxes and cut taxes in several ways over the last few years. Those are permanent benefits for our citizens, unless the legislature changes its mind down the road.” With surpluses of hundreds of millions of dollars (though the structural surplus is likely a smaller, but still significant, number) and the Massachusetts rainy day fund at its highest level ever ($2.3 billion), Romney certainly has earned some crowing rights.
FOR SUCH A SHORT TENURE, these are not small accomplishments, said Massachusetts House Minority Leader Brad Jones. He believes Romney’s willingness to get personally involved in many high-profile issues has advanced conservative causes where others have failed.
“Unlike some previous governors, when issues have come up that need to be addressed, he has no problem coming down to my office to meet with our caucus and get the view from the ground,” Jones said. “He doesn’t hide out in the corner office waiting for people to bang on his door. Personally, I find that very refreshing.”
It’s an ethos that has been inspirational to some. Timothy Murphy first met Romney while serving as an investment banker at J.P. Morgan during Bain Capital’s purchase of Domino’s Pizza in 1998. It was a brief meeting, but one that stuck with Murphy. When Romney made a post-victory call for individuals with “different skill sets” to come into the public sector, Murphy answered.
“He was the type of leader I was willing to put my career on hold to follow,” Murphy, a native of Massachusetts who now serves as the state’s secretary of health and human services, explained. “It seemed like a unique opportunity to help fundamentally change the way state government delivers services and does business. And I haven’t been disappointed.
“The governor looks to hire people he can trust to delegate to who will come back with solid policy,” Murphy continued. “But you better be ready for him to probe and question what you bring back. You better do your homework. He’s going to want to pull different levers. He listens closely, but you’re dealing with someone open to pushback. You’re dealing with someone very comfortable with his role as chief executive officer. It’s a creative environment, but corner cutting and sloppy research is not tolerated.”
Boston Foundation President Paul Grogan, who worked with Romney on housing and education issues, found this to be true as well as he headed up a task force for the governor on how to fix under-performing schools.
“Often as not these commissions are just window dressing,” Grogan said. “This was authentic. The conclusions we came to were not foreordained. In a state like Massachusetts where teachers’ unions are entrenched and any sort of pragmatic thinking about how to spur meaningful reform meets with some intransigence, the prospects for the suggestions we made are uncertain, but on the merits of being willing to address a tough issue head on, I think the governor deserves a lot of credit.”
“Probably the most unique thing about Mitt Romney, as far as politicians go, is that he doesn’t take offense when you tell him what you really think,” Barbara Anderson added. “Everybody says they won’t take offense, of course, but Mitt’s one of the few who really doesn’t.”
NOT THAT THERE HAVEN’T BEEN LOSSES. Ultimately, the Democratic legislature, with enough votes to override Romney’s veto, calls the shots. Within those confines, however, he’s been able to get much more done than many pundits expected when he took his oath.
“Any time you lose something, you’re disappointed,” Romney said. “But I don’t measure myself on a win/loss record. It’s not like a baseball team where you’re worried about any loss. Every time you win something I figure it’s another step in helping people, and I take a great deal of satisfaction in every single victory.”
In such an outgunned environment, it would be easy to play the martyr card, but Romney prefers to demur. During the 2004 elections he attempted to gain more traction in the Massachusetts legislature by recruiting and campaigning for 100 Republican House and Senate candidates, backed by $3 million from the Republican Party. He even gave them a spiffy, collective name — “Team Reform” — but on Election Day the results were less than stellar: a net loss for the GOP of two seats in the House and one in the Senate. Worse, the attempt only cemented opposition to his policies.
“Seeking a healthier balance between the two parties might be good for democracy, but people in the House weren’t used to that sort of challenge,” Minority Leader Jones said. “It shouldn’t be taken personally, but it did not sit well with some Democrats around here.”
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.”
“As Popeye used to say, ‘I am what I am,'” Romney sighed. “I’m as clear as I can be to people as to what my views areO. When I ran for office I indicated I did not favor same-sex marriage or civil unions and I have simply stood by that positionO. At the same time, I’ve indicated I’m a person who will follow the law. I respect the process of the law and if the legal processes result in a conclusion I disagree with, I will nonetheless follow the law. I swore to do that when I became governor. A lot of what is passed by the legislature is not as I would pass it, but I will implement it and enforce it.”
It’s an explanation that doesn’t cut it with Haskins. “When [Romney] claims, as he has repeatedly, that he is going to follow the law, agree or disagree, he is either lying or he is so ignorant of the law and the state constitution that he should be impeached for negligence,” he said, adding that until the legislature passes a law granting same-sex couples the right to marry, Romney is not bound to enforce those marriages. By Haskins’ lights, Romney has more of a responsibility to defy than anything else.
IN FAIRNESS, several nationally prominent social conservatives have been more impressed with Romney’s performance vis-a-vis the marriage debate than hometown discontents. Frequent National Review Online contributor and president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy Maggie Gallagher called Romney “a very brave man, indeed,” for his stand. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby — never one to shy away from whacking Romney from the right — wrote, “Few mainstream politicians have stepped up to make a principled case in support of that timeless definition [of marriage], and so far none has done so as cogently as Romney.”
Upset as they are, other social conservatives like Camenker reluctantly admit that there were worse fates than a corner office occupied by Mitt Romney.
“If Romney hadn’t come along, Massachusetts would probably be like Havana right now,” he said. “I don’t despise the guy. He isn’t the devil to me or anything. I just wish he’d done things differently. If I had the 2002 election to do over again, I’d still pull the lever for him unless some sterling Republican miraculously appeared.”
And so what does Barbara Anderson, who begged Romney to “save the Commonwealth,” think of his decision to move on after a single term?
“Well, it’s nice having him as governor, but, to me, it’s important to look at the big picture,” she said. “It’s important to have a good president, too, and someone in the White House doing a good job for the country is doing a good job for Massachusetts. I can’t imagine why anyone would put themselves through all that, but if he decides to, he’ll have my support.”