What’s the matter with Massachusetts that would make Mitt Romney want to pretend he had never been its governor?
Yes, it presents some image problems for the conservative candidate Romney now wants to be. The last time a Massachusetts governor ran for president, it did not go well. Still, it’s what Romney has. Had he not been (to use his preferred term) “CEO” of the 15th-most populous state in the country, Romney would have a weak claim on the Oval Office.
Imagine if Harry Truman had run as a haberdasher, or Jimmy Carter as a peanut farmer. The only successful candidate to run as a businessman — it was all he had — was Herbert Hoover. Look where that got us. The last candidate to run with a pointer and a whiteboard was Ross Perot. Enough said.
Résumé inflation can get you fired, but résumé deflation is downright un-American. It goes against human nature to overlook one’s own accomplishments. Romney remains a man of mystery next to the president. Barack Obama’s no Joe Biden, but he has become known to us in some fundamental ways after four years being beamed into our living rooms.
In one way, Romney is appealingly modest. We distrust people who blow themselves up bigger than they are. No one likes mayors who brag that they pulled all-nighters in snowstorms or senators who detail how they agonized over votes on defense appropriations. Neither should we entirely trust a politician who shrink-wraps his experience. Don’t run for president if you’re not ready to discuss every line of your résumé.
Romney’s tack, however, is not modesty. Reticence this great makes people wonder what he is hiding. To himself and to the world, he’s a businessman, nothing more, defined by his years leading Bain Capital. He willingly ignores whole pages of his CV.
Sooner or later, Romney is going to have to present himself whole — and that includes the parts he would rather airbrush out of his past. This means coming to terms with his most valuable experience as a presidential candidate: being governor of Massachusetts.
Romney will have to take the good with the bad. Yes, he closed a $1.2 billion budget gap — but he did so by cutting spending (largely on education) and raising revenue (largely from the middle class). He also raised the state’s debt by more than 16 percent and created fewer jobs than all but three states.
We haven’t even gotten into social issues, where his current positions represent not so much a flip-flop as a belly flop. During his 1994 campaign against Ted Kennedy for Senate, Romney pledged to be more gay than Kennedy. Running for governor eight years later, Romney favored abortion rights and gay rights.
The one miracle Romney could claim for himself, he dare not mention. Largely due to the health care reform law passed while he was governor, Massachusetts has the third-lowest infant mortality, the very lowest child and teen mortality, and the second lowest teen birth rate in the country. It has the second-highest rate of access to health care for children.
A more agile politician could claim that he got the current “Massachusetts Miracle” started. The state now ranks fifth in job creation, with a relatively low 6.3 percent unemployment rate. It is first in the United States in reading for fourth-graders and eighth-graders, and fifth in the world (ahead of Singapore!). It’s the sixth-most hospitable location for business. Its rates of divorce and suicide are among the nation’s lowest.
But Romney chooses to pretend the state fell into the Atlantic to join the swells in Martha’s Vineyard in an island democracy. While shunning the Bay State, Romney flew off to Sin City — on the very day he clinched the nomination with a win in the Texas primary — to hang with a vulgar self-proclaimed real estate and gambling mogul who still harbors doubts about Obama’s citizenship.
Donald Trump, whom Romney calls “good people,” is the constant of Romney’s campaign. For Republicans, apparently, it’s better to be seen with a businessman George Will calls a “bloviating ignoramus” than with a public official who might remind people that you were once one yourself. Better not to admit to having once required an individual mandate than to explain how it can help provide millions of people with health care. Better not to have actually balanced a budget if it took raising taxes to do so.
The rule is pretty simple: The less public service you’ve engaged in, the more qualified you are.
One of the great conservative complaints against Obama was that he wasn’t properly “vetted” by the news media. Yet it is Romney — also a candidate in 2008 — who remains, more than most presidential candidates, an unknown quantity.