Romney, We Hardly Knew Ye


Massachusetts State House portrait of Governor Romney

It’s not a surprise that Mitt Romney will not win his “home” state of Massachusetts. He was the last of a long string of Republican governors here who took the job with an eye on the next big thing. Like those before him, he started out as a relative moderate and gradually sharpened his conservative credentials on the backs of his constituents. In Romney’s case, that included running around the rest of the country mocking the Commonwealth.

When Romney won the Governor’s office against a weak Democratic candidate, there were many of us who wanted to give Mitt a chance. Government, especially state agencies, could be inefficient and maybe a business-trained leader with an eye toward streamlining operations wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Romney was a man of big ideas, but also someone accustomed to being in charge. Faced with a powerful legislature dominated by the opposite party, his bully pulpit style of leadership won him few victories and he moved rapidly from issue to issue looking to feather his cap.

Some of his battles here made sense, but he struggled in his bid to reorganize and wrest control from numerous transportation agencies until the nation’s most expensive infrastructure project, our “Big Dig,” ultimately killed somebody.

His war with the public university system was harder to understand, except with a view to a future campaign brag. He pushed the sitting UMASS President Billy Bulger out of his seat, citing his relationship with America’s most wanted fugitive, James “Whitey” Bulger. In so doing, Romney deprived the university of its best fundraiser in history and threw the state into protracted legal wrangling over Bulger’s pension; in both cases, expensive losses for Massachusetts. Removing Bulger was only part of his Bain-inspired reorganization plan, which included shrinking and partially privatizing the state college system, and cutting programs that didn’t meet the skill demands of local corporations. In heavily Democratic Massachusetts, that plan went nowhere and he soon forgot about it.

Most notable about Romney’s time as Governor, was not, oddly, his reorganization of the health care system, his one, true example of cross-party collaboration, but his fight against the legalization of gay marriage. On this issue, you could see a man who knew he could get hammered by his national party, and who took the harsh step of invoking an ancient anti-miscegenation law to prohibit outside couples from traveling here to marry, and aggressively pursuing oversight of birth certificates of children born to gay couples, in spite of his earlier statements in support of gay rights. It was the behavior of a man who, though he had seen more success than most of us will ever see in our lifetimes, was still looking for the next promotion.

As voters, we in Massachusetts didn’t pay that much attention to Romney’s business record. Mostly, we saw it as an asset. We knew his success allowed him to decline a salary while he served as Governor, a symbolic, but important act of leadership in times of fiscal crisis. We were familiar with Staples, a local success story, and we were aware that the corporate restructuring he was known for often involved business consolidation and job loss. Few of us understood or even bothered to look at the predatory nature of his business and the sheer scale of the wealth he accumulated on the backs of the working class.

Romney’s Mormonism was not a big issue for Massachusetts. Clean cut, and mild-mannered, he came across as man of principle, rather than piety. Many of us respected the private nature of the compass that clearly drove him, not realizing that it was largely expediency.

Most surprising for us has not been Romney’s shift to the right as a national candidate, but his exposure as a man who is not much of a leader at all when it comes to his own party. Throughout the campaign his positions have shifted, not in an evolutionary way, but depending on his audience from day-to-day.  He has been revealed as the kind of man who opposes abortion while profiting from it, complains about China while shipping jobs there, plays fast and loose with the truth about, not just his policies, but his taxes, his residence, and his employment status to further his own aims.  Any one of these things might be forgivable; together, they portray a man to whom the normal rules do not apply.

Mitt Romney no doubt objected to the Etch A  Sketch characterization made about his campaign by top adviser Eric Fehrnstrom back in March. But, with this campaign and this candidate, it’s possible no truer words were ever spoken.

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