How does Mitt Romney convince voters that, contra President Obama’s campaign, he’s not a rapacious capitalist or right-wing extremist bent on destroying the middle class? His best bet might simply be reminding them he was once governor of Massachusetts.
Romney’s single term as chief executive of the Bay State, a four-year stint marked by bipartisan achievement, is a potentially key asset of his biography, one that tempers criticism that he’s an out-of-touch businessman. Even as the Obama campaign, as it has done in earnest over the last week, scrutinizes his record there -- a line of attack that no doubt has possible potency -- the former governor could ultimately benefit from the extra attention.
In fact, Team Obama is highlighting a part of Romney’s resume that he himself has largely avoided mentioning. During the GOP presidential primary, it made sense for the candidate whom conservatives viewed warily to forgo mentioning his tenure in the blue state of Massachusetts and certainly his support of a health care bill that included, like Obama’s, a mandate to buy health insurance. But what was a negative for Republican hard-liners might morph into a positive for general election moderates.
“We’re through the primary now,” said Frank Donatelli, former political director for President Ronald Reagan. “If you’re going to look at the general mass of his record of governor, for a lot of voters who are looking for stability and composure and someone who can handle job of president, I think that record puts him in a very strong position. It doesn’t lend itself to caricature of a dangerous right-winger.”
Nevertheless, there’s a danger for the Romney campaign if the election begins to center on his record in Massachusetts, said John Brabender, a GOP strategist who helped lead Rick Santorum to a second-place finish in the Republican presidential primary.
“They don’t want this to become a referendum simply on who do you believe on Romney’s record in Massachusetts,” he said. “They want to keep Obama on his record. They want to keep Romney looking forward.”
Romney's campaign undoubtedly has noted that the last Bay State governor to run on his record while running for president -- Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988 -- got ripped apart when he touted the so-called "Massachusetts miracle." Republicans made an issue of Boston Harbor being the nation's dirtiest, as well as infamously turning furloughed inmate Willie Horton into a household name.
Instead, the presumptive GOP nominee needs to show how he confronted and solved problems in the Bay State, and how he can use that experience to do the same for the United States.
“To me, the only way to do use it as a narrative is not to round his resume out – I don’t think people care about that,” said Brabender. “It’s more about demonstrating he’s faced problems in the past and use that to prove he knew how to solve them then and knows how to solve them now.”
Romney’s gubernatorial background has a strong track record of success in past presidential elections. Before Obama’s election, four of the last five presidents (George H.W. Bush being the lone exception) had been governors before taking up residence in the White House.
Congressional lawmakers had fared far worse: The last U.S. senator to become president before Obama was Lyndon B. Johnson, and only then after he was vice president. The same was true of former House members Gerald Ford and the elder Bush.
“It’s because governors can talk about what they’ve done, as opposed to members of Congress who talk about what they believe,” said Donatelli, who now chairs the GOP group GOPAC. “It’s a unique, action-oriented position.”
Businessmen have also struggled to gain traction, even in GOP primaries. Publishing executive Steve Forbes, for instance, flopped in his bid for the Republican nomination in 1996 and 2000. Romney, in fact, might be the presidential nominee of either party most closely linked to private industry in recent memory.
Romney’s most significant achievement in Massachusetts was, of course, the passage of a health care law that guaranteed all of the state’s citizens health insurance – an accomplishment he managed with support of the Democratic Party. The law, of course, even now isn’t necessarily an asset for his campaign – it curtails his critique of Obama’s own health care law, which was modeled on the Massachusetts version. But it contradicts the notion that he’s a heartless capitalist while proving he can work with the opposite party.
The governor’s record isn’t pristine, however, and the Obama campaign has taken advantage where it can. The state was only 47th in job creation during Romney’s time in office, well below the national pace. The statistic is a damaging one for a candidate whose central campaign theme is he can reinvigorate the economy.
“Governor Romney offers himself as a job creator, a kind of economic oracle, and he's saying the same exact things he said 10 years ago when he ran for governor of Massachusetts,” senior Obama strategist David Axelrod said Sunday on Face the Nation. “And what happened? Massachusetts plunged to 47th in job creation. They lost manufacturing jobs at twice the rate of the country. They grew jobs at one-fifth the rate of the rest of country. It wasn't the record of a job creator. He had the wrong economic philosophy and he failed.”
In anticipation of such broadsides, Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul sent out an email as the Sunday talk shows were getting under way attempting to give a far different take on his tenure.
"Massachusetts was a turnaround story under Governor Romney," Saul said in the email. "He inherited a projected $3 billion budget deficit and a legislature that was 85 percent Democratic. He immediately cut spending, cut taxes, balanced the budget four times, left $2 billion in the rainy day fund, and the unemployment rate had fallen to 4.7 percent by the time he left office."