Let us try to tell the story of Mitt Romney, “severely conservative” governor.
Perhaps it should start in 2002, when Romney was campaigning in Massachusetts. “I’m not a partisan Republican,” Romney said. “I’m someone who is moderate, and . . . my views are progressive.”
No, that doesn’t quite fit — not with Romney’s recent re-telling of his political life story. Last week, Romney told right-wing activists that he had been a “severely” conservative governor.
Perhaps that severity didn’t show itself until the end of his single term. Back then, Romney held a ceremony complete with drummers and tootling fifes to celebrate his bipartisan health-care bill.
“It’s now my pleasure to introduce my collaborator and friend,” Romney said. “Senator Edward Kennedy.”
This much is true: Romney worked to cut spending, to stop same-sex marriage, and to bring back the state’s death penalty. But Romney also frequently sought compromises with a Democratic legislature. And when he couldn’t win, he often gave up.
Romney was conservative. But he was rarely “severe” in the eyes of those who watched him most closely.
Back then--in a time before the Tea Party made austerity cool--people thought that was the point.
“‘Severely’ conservative exaggerates his conservatism,” said David Tuerck, who runs a free-market think tank, the Beacon Hill Institute, a short walk from the Massachusetts State House. “I know that he’s desperate for everybody to believe he’s a conservative until he gets the nomination. But I’ve watched him for a long time…in his heart of hearts, he’s a guy who wants to be pragmatic.”
Romney debuted the new adverb (“severely”) at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Before that, he had spent months and millions spent to convince supporters of his conservatism--but somehow managed the opposite.
Since November, the number of Republican-leaning voters convinced that he is a strong conservative has actually dropped, from 53 percent to 42, according to a Pew Research Center poll.
So: again, from the top. Mitt Romney, severely conservative.
How does that story go?
“I cut taxes 19 times and balanced the budget all four years. I cast over 800 vetoes and I cut entire programs,” Romney told the CPAC audience.
Romney’s handling of the state’s budget crisis is one of his major achievements as governor. But his methods were not unheard-of in the state, or unusually conservative by today’s standards. The Boston Globe reported that, while Romney cut 603 people from the state payroll, one of his GOP predecessors, William Weld, had cut 7,700.
Romney fought proposals to increase personal income tax--but he did raise fees for some government services. And he also sought $128 million in new tax revenue from corporations, through what he called closing loopholes.
“I broadly call that a middle-of-the-road, balanced approach,” said Michael Widmer, of the nonpartisan Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. “That’s the approach every governor--Republican, Democrat--and legislatures have taken. Which is: some balance between new revenues and spending cuts.”
In fact, some in the state’s business community felt that Romney had leaned too hard on them.
“Proposing these kinds of tax changes is like locking a child up in a candy store,” said Brian Gilmore of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state’s largest business group. The kid, in his analogy, was the Democrat-dominated state legislature. “They’re not going to oppose it.”
The natural start to the story of a “severe” Romney governership might be his campaign promises in 2002. He made at least 60 of them, laying many out in the signature format of an ex-consultant: PowerPoint presentations.
Many of his pledges were about tweaking state government, to make it run better. It is hard to read anything severe in “establish a uniform, state-wide building code.” Or in another Romney promise: better traffic signs. “Signs that tell where you are,” one PowerPoint promised, “and where you’re going.”
In some cases, however, Romney really was promising to bring conservative ideas to a blue state. Romney wanted term limits on district judges. He wanted to abolish the expensive and troubled Turnpike Authority. And he wanted to bring back the death penalty, which the state had outlawed in 1994.
Romney worked especially hard on that last promise--and, in the process, provided the case study of his measured, technocratic approach.
Romney didn’t propose the most conservative kind of capital-punishment statute. Instead, he proposed a law so compromised that people wondered if it would ever even be used.