With everyone and their brother declaring Mitt Romney’s winning the Republican presidential nomination “inevitable,” I figure it’s about time that I gave my perspective on the guy. And what is that perspective that makes me think it’s worth sharing?
- I’ve followed, to various degrees, Massachusetts politics for well over a decade.
- I’m a New Hampshirite, which means I got a good look at Candidate Romney back in 2007.
- And Romney owns a home here in NH, so he’s kinda my neighbor there.
But to get the full Romney picture, I gotta go back over 20 years to lay the groundwork. I’ll try to make it brief where I can, entertaining where I can’t.
In 1988, the Democratic presidential nominee was Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. After he was defeated, he filled out the last two years of his term in a rather lackluster fashion, as the “Massachusetts Miracle” he’d claimed so much credit for fell apart. In 1990, the voters of Massachusetts had had enough of letting the Democrats completely own their state, and voted in a charismatic, intelligent, and effective Republican — William Weld. Weld was remarkably successful at keeping the still-Democratically-dominated legislature in check at least a little, and won re-election in 1994.
And in 1994, Mitt Romney made his first run for public office. He challenged Senator Ted Kennedy, and ran a truly gentlemanly campaign. Typically, the Kennedy machine fired up the slime machine, ran a truly dirty race, and trounced Romney. But that was OK; everyone knew the real story. Kennedy was undefeatable, but someone had to go up against him for appearance’ sake. Romney, by agreeing to be the fall guy, established himself in Massachusetts Republican politics as a stand-up guy, and got himself some name recognition. It was an ice-breaker, not a serious race.
Anyway, back to Weld. After re-election, folks started seeing signs that he was getting bored with the office, and only doing a half-assed job. President Clinton nominated him to be ambassador to Mexico, and he flew off to DC for his confirmation hearings. Things got ugly, and Weld saw he had a fight on his hands — so he resigned the governorship to devote all his efforts to the process. (He eventually withdrew when he realized it wasn’t gonna happen.)
Weld was succeeded by his Lieutenant Governor, Paul Cellucci. Cellucci wasn’t Weld, but he was still better than the Democrats. He did OK enough to get re-elected in 1998.
And then, in a truly bizarre incident of deja vu, Cellucci was tapped for an ambassadorship. Cellucci was named by President Bush to be our emissary to Canada (and unlike Weld, was confirmed by the Senate). Cellucci was succeeded by his lieutenant governor, Jane Swift, in 2001.
And while Cellucci was passable, Swift was a disaster. She was hopelessly out of her depth, and had no clue what she was doing. And when the 2002 election drew near, everyone was astounded that she actually started prepping for election.
And then the hammer fell on her. Republicans realized that if Swift ran again, she’d lose — and likely take down several of what few other elected Republicans they had. So they started looking for an alternative.
Cue Mitt Romney. He’d just come off essentially saving the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, and had kept his hand in Bay State politics. But Romney said he wouldn’t challenge a sitting Republican — which was the cue for some serious arm twisting. So Jane Swift announced that she wouldn’t seek election for her own term — and three hours later, Romney announced he was running.
The Democrats were crestfallen. They’d seen Swift as their chance to reclaim the governorship after 12 years of Republicans, and knew that Romney had many of the qualities that had led William Weld to win way back then. They ended up nominating a career pol from a family of career pols, and put up a hell of a good fight — but in the end, Romney won.
And Romney was a pretty effective governor. He was seriously constrained by the fact that at no point did the Democrats have less than 5/6 of the seats in both Houses of the legislature. (I once calculated that 1 in 5 Democrats could stay home, and they still could override Romney’s vetoes.) Romney, however, had several strengths that served him well. He had great political courage, which meant that he was more than willing to stand up and fight the legislature, calling them out by name and daring them to confront him — and even though they had the numbers, they didn’t dare very often. Plus, he had exceptional personal popularity, which means he could rally public support to his side quite readily.
There were three incidents that stuck out during his tenure that showed his effectiveness as governor.
First, there was the matter of William Bulger. Bulger was the former president of the Senate and still one of the most powerful men in Massachusetts politics. Not only did he know where all the figurative bodies were buried, but his brother was notorious (then fugitive) mobster Whitey Bulger — who’d literally buried quite a few bodies of his own. Between the two of them, they’d run the state for decades.
Well, the heat finally got too much for Billy, so he retired from elected office and “accepted” a sinecure as the head of the University of Massachusetts, where he still made a nice, tidy paycheck and continued to swell his retirement fund. Plus, he still had plenty of power — the U-Mass system is a great dumping ground for hacks, with tons of no-show jobs and empty titles that come with fat paychecks.
Well, Romney didn’t care for that. He decided that Bulger had to go — and after a rather nasty fight, he did. Score one for the Mittster.
Next, The Big Dig. The Boston Central Artery project had been going on for almost two decades, and was legendary in its corruption. The project had gone from $2 billion to over $20 billion, and the legislature had kept it under its control — it was even better than U-Mass for no-show and meaningless jobs for career hacks. Romney fought to take it away from them, but they weren’t going to let go of that huge cash cow.
Until one night a concrete ceiling tile fell on a car and killed a woman. At that point, no one in the legislature wanted to be seen as having any kind of power or authority over the Big Dig. Romney renewed his demands for control, and the legislature was all too eager to pass the hot potato. Romney promptly sacked the head of the Dig, put in people who knew what they were doing, and actually reined it in to get it finished. Score two for the Mittster.
And then there’s RomneyCare. Here, though, he doesn’t get too much of the credit. It was almost all the work of the Democratic legislature; Romney’s main contribution was to put a few brakes on the process and put some common-sense restrictions on the plan. As I saw it, he saw the plan as a tiger — and figured that he could either get eaten by the tiger, or hop on its back and try to steer it where it would do the least harm.
But Romney doesn’t portray it that way. He holds it up as a point of pride, embraces it. He talks like it was a good thing. And that is a big problem for a lot of Republicans.
Anyway, in 2006 a lot of people were wondering if Romney would run for president in 2008. They said that they didn’t want to live through another Dukakis — a governor who spent all his time running for president. So Romney said he wouldn’t run for a second term, passing the reins to his Lieutenant Governor, Kerry Healey.
Who was crushed in the general election by Deval Patrick, who is essentially “Obama Lite.”
Well, that covers Romney up until 2008, and I’m sure you all know that story well enough. Besides, even I’m getting bored with this article. I’ll save the followup (already half-written) for another article.