Politics & Policy

Matinee Mitt

The governor of Massachusetts may soon be appearing in a (political) theater near you.

EDITOR’S NOTE: By choosing not to run for reelection next year, Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has taken a big step toward running for president in 2008. “He could become the most prominent governor (or recent ex-governor) in the GOP field–an important position to occupy, given that senators so rarely rise above their station in Washington,” wrote John J. Miller in a <a href="National Review cover story on Romney from earlier this year.

One evening two summers ago, as the sun set and darkness spread over Lake Winnipesaukee, Mitt Romney noticed the lights from a boat drifting by. The governor of Massachusetts was vacationing at his home in New Hampshire. Suddenly, he heard screams coming from the water. Romney rushed to the shoreline, where one of his grown sons was squinting into the distance. “I think something’s going on out there,” he told his father. They hopped on WaveRunners and zipped to the scene of a sinking. “About a quarter of a mile out, we found maybe half a dozen people treading water,” says Romney. The governor ferried them in, two by two. When the story hit the Boston papers, Democrats jeered. “Mitt Romney only chooses to run for office from Massachusetts–he doesn’t vacation here,” grumbled a spokeswoman for the state party. Apparently the official position of Massachusetts Democrats is to oppose water rescues.

Whatever the case, the incident highlighted a brutal fact about Romney’s governorship: The man simply can’t catch a break from Democrats, who occupy virtually every statewide office except his own and control roughly 85 percent of the Massachusetts legislature. They have made his tenure in this bluest of blue states a frustrating one, but one that nevertheless has attracted the attention of Republicans thinking about 2008. Romney is clearly interested in running for president. He won’t say so, but Mike Murphy, a senior adviser to the governor, admits that Romney is “testing the waters.” Looking ahead, the question is no longer whether Romney can catch a break from Democrats, but whether he can catch one from conservatives who possess an instinctive wariness of anything emanating from the land of Kennedy, Dukakis, and Kerry. Their skepticism is well warranted–but Romney also deserves a fair hearing from them as they search for a successor to President Bush. They may come to like the guy.

Willard Mitt Romney, 58 years old, was born into a prominent political family. His late father, George Romney, was the governor of Michigan in the 1960s–a Rockefeller Republican whose own presidential ambitions evaporated after a gaffe over the Vietnam War. (He described himself as a victim of “brainwashing.”) The son got his first name from J. Willard Marriott, the hotel magnate and a friend of his father’s. The middle name–the catchy one–comes from a relative who played for the Chicago Bears in the 1920s.

Romney looks like he could play quarterback–he’s tall and trim–except that he’s not nearly mean enough for the gridiron. The man exudes niceness, which is one of the qualities that make him an unusually good retail politician. He doesn’t drink alcohol or coffee, smoke cigarettes, or swear–the closest thing to a curse word he’ll ever utter is the adjective “bloomin’,” as in, “Can you believe those bloomin’ Democrats?” But he has to be really worked up before he’ll say it. His one vice appears to be wolfing down a bowl of sugar-coated cereal just before bedtime. He calls this his “Jethro bowl.”

That’s a reference to a voracious character in The Beverly Hillbillies. Yet Romney’s no rube. His standard stump speech–the one he delivers to Republican audiences outside Massachusetts–takes a swipe at liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith and makes a reference to The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, a thick book by David S. Landes, a Harvard historian. Many governors don’t have time for books, but when I ask Romney whether he has read any good ones lately, he pulls a copy of Reagan: Man of Principle, by John Harmer, from his bag. “I get driven everywhere now,” he says. “That gives me a lot of time to read.” Romney is also a fan of David McCullough’s recent biography of John Adams. “He and Abigail Adams were the original Republicans,” says the governor. “I respect them enormously, and I’m not just saying that because they’re from Massachusetts.”

Before becoming president, Adams lived in France as a diplomat. Romney also has spent time in France, on a foreign mission that is a rite of passage for Mormons. For two and a half years, he tried to spread his faith. He had a lot of doors slammed in his face. At one point, he was involved in a head-on car collision–the driver in the other vehicle was drunk–and French authorities said that he had been killed. Fortunately, the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. Romney returned home and married Ann, his high-school sweetheart, when he was 22 and she was 19. Though he attended Stanford for two semesters, he transferred to Brigham Young University and became the valedictorian. The young couple then moved to Massachusetts, where Mitt earned degrees from Harvard’s business and law schools. A successful career in venture capital followed, as Romney helped provide some of the financing for Domino’s Pizza and Staples, the office-supply chain. He and Ann now have five grown children, all boys, as well as eight grandkids.

There’s a storybook quality to all this, and Romney’s own chiseled handsomeness only adds to the tale. “He has a lot of presence on television–a real gift for the tube,” says Republican media consultant Alex Castellanos. “Politics is all about communications these days, so that’s really important.” The next time the casting director of a prime-time show needs to pick an actor to play the president, in fact, he could do a lot worse than Romney (especially if Fred Thompson isn’t available). The governor certainly would pass a voice test. Ed Gillespie, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, tells of going to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park with Romney last fall. “He has season tickets along the third-base line, and all through the game people were coming up and telling him that he was doing a great job,” says Gillespie. During the seventh-inning stretch, Romney and the rest of the crowd stood to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” “The man has a great singing voice, and it started to tick me off,” jokes Gillespie. “I began to wonder whether there’s anything he does badly.”

POLITICS

Well, there was that 1994 race for the Senate, when Romney took on a cause dear to conservatives everywhere and challenged Ted Kennedy. It was an uphill battle, but also an exciting time to run as a Republican. About a month before the election, polls showed Romney actually leading the liberal legend. Then reality set in: Kennedy’s campaign woke up from its stupor and released a trumped-up but deadly ad on Romney’s alleged business dealings. More outrageous were Kennedy’s insinuations that Mormons were racists who shouldn’t be allowed to hold public office. Kennedy ultimately bested Romney in a debate and cruised to a 17-point victory. The Romney defeat was one of the few GOP disappointments in a historic year for the party.

What was bad for Republicans was good for the Winter Olympics, however, because it made Romney available in 1999 to take over the troubled Salt Lake City Games, scheduled for 2002 but floundering beneath a bribery scandal and a debt of nearly $400 million. Romney turned the Games around, organizing a series of massive events that he has compared to putting on seven Super Bowls a day for 17 straight days. Like Peter Ueberroth before him, Romney became a minor celebrity. The public found him interesting not just because of his leadership skills but also because he was willing to let the cameras roll as he tried out the skeleton track in Park City. (The skeleton, a new Olympic sport, is basically a headfirst version of the luge.) “Mitt has done something in his life that’s really saleable–turning the Olympics from a cesspool of corruption into a big success, and dealing with the post-9/11 security headache as well,” says one veteran GOP operative.

The salesmanship certainly worked in Massachusetts. Just weeks after the Olympic torch was extinguished, Romney forced the state’s incumbent Republican governor, Jane Swift, to step aside and make room for his candidacy. He spent more than $6 million of his own money on the contest against Democratic state treasurer Shannon O’Brien. Romney put the blunders of 1994 far behind him. He was a much improved candidate, seeming less like a businessman dabbling in politics than a politician with a business background. “He found a constituency in the exurbs of Boston,” says Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the RNC (and President Bush’s campaign manager last year). “That’s a really important group of voters for Republicans, now and in the future.”

One of the leading issues in Romney’s race was abortion: O’Brien proposed changing state law to let 16-year-old girls end their pregnancies without parental consent. Romney took a different tack. “I promised that if elected, I’d call a truce–a moratorium, if you will,” he says. “I vowed to veto any legislation that sought to change the existing rules.” That may have made him operationally pro-choice–”I fully respect and will fully protect a woman’s right to choose,” he said during the campaign–but none of the major pro-abortion groups would have anything to do with him. Instead, they flocked to O’Brien. Romney wound up beating her by five points.

Romney’s first priority as governor involved the budget. The state had to deal with a $3 billion deficit. This being “Taxachusetts,” the Democrats’ preferred option was entirely predictable. It was also unacceptable to Romney. “You don’t create economic prosperity by raising taxes,” he says. He cut some programs, combined others, and looked for savings everywhere he could. In the end, he was forced to boost fees for a variety of government services by more than $200 million. “I know it’s kind of hard to distinguish between taxes and fees,” he says, “but we stayed away from broad-based fee increases such as driver’s-license registrations.” He says that balancing the budget without a tax hike has been his most significant accomplishment as governor. “We couldn’t be happier with him,” says Barbara Anderson of Citizens for Limited Taxation, the state’s leading taxpayer group. Steve Adams of Boston’s Pioneer Institute, a think tank, concurs: “Without Romney, we would have been slapped with a lot of new taxes.”

TOUGH ISSUES

Despite this fiscal achievement, a pair of social issues has done far more to define Romney’s governorship: gay marriage and embryonic-stem-cell research. On either matter, a good case can be made that Romney has fought harder for social conservatives than any other governor in America, and it is difficult to imagine his doing so in a more daunting political environment. “On marriage and cloning, he has provided aggressive leadership as a positive, pro-family governor,” says Kris Mineau of the Massachusetts Family Institute. “On a scale of one to ten, I’d rank him an eight, and I’m a tough grader.”

Gay marriage featured prominently in Romney’s 2002 election because everybody knew the Massachusetts supreme court was poised to rule on the matter. From the start, Romney made it clear that he believes marriage should exist only between a man and a woman. When the court’s decision came down, however, it said that the state constitution mandates gay marriages. So Romney began plotting a counterstrategy, seeking advice from former attorney general Edwin Meese as well as constitutional scholar Matthew Spalding of the Heritage Foundation. They zeroed in on an obscure law from 1913 that has the effect of voiding gay marriages conferred upon non-Massachusetts residents, and so Romney has used his administrative powers to prevent Boston from becoming a same-sex version of Las Vegas. Although this policy is now under legal assault, Romney has so far saved 49 other states from the judicial controversy afflicting his own.

In addition, he has tried to amend the state constitution, which is the only way to undo the court’s ruling as opposed to merely limiting it. Under Massachusetts law, this is a complicated, multi-step process in which the governor plays no formal role. Romney, however, has used his bully pulpit to call for a total ban on gay marriage. The legislature complied, but only on an amendment that also permitted civil unions. Romney wasn’t happy about this. He also had no alternative. “If I have to choose between gay marriages and civil unions,” he says, “I’ll choose civil unions every time.” For this amendment to be fully adopted, the legislature must approve it one more time (which it may in fact refuse to do). If it clears this hurdle, it then will go before voters as a referendum. (In the meantime, Romney is also pushing for a federal constitutional amendment to protect marriage.) Whatever the outcome, there’s no denying that Romney has pulled every lever within his reach to defend traditional marriage. “In the worst possible circumstances, he confronted one of the toughest issues of our politics with considerable moral seriousness and political skill,” says Spalding. “That’s the mark of a conservative statesman.”

A number of conservatives also have cheered him on in his war with the state legislature over embryonic-stem-cell research, even though there are differences between his position and the one held by most pro-lifers. The issue first came up last fall, when Democrats offered a bill to permit the cloning of human embryos for scientific research. At a meeting in the governor’s office, Harvard professor Douglas Melton described the science. “I felt uncomfortable,” says Romney. “I thought of Brave New World or The Matrix, with hundreds of thousands of little lives being made and then being crushed.” So Romney announced that he would not support a law that allowed the creation of human life for the purpose of destroying it. He used funds from his campaign account to make his case in radio ads. He did this even though his wife suffers from multiple sclerosis and arguably would benefit from the most aggressive stem-cell research conceivable.

Romney does part company with many of his allies, including the president, on an important detail: He would sanction research on “surplus” embryos produced during in-vitro fertilization–unwanted entities that may be discarded anyway. Despite this difference, which could recede as IVF techniques improve and “surplus” embryos become fewer, Romney has done his best to defend the culture of life on what is possibly the most inhospitable terrain in the country. Condemning “embryo farming” as he does is certainly no way to curry favor in Cambridge. Moreover, Romney appears to face a veto-proof majority on this matter. He chooses to fight because he knows that losing a certain kind of battle can be preferable to waving a white flag.

In the future, Romney may want to pick some battles he can win. Perhaps illegal immigration will be one of them, given its rising importance among grassroots conservatives. “I’m very much in favor of legal immigration and I’m opposed to illegal immigration,” says Romney. “We’re in a race for the best minds, and I wish we could bring in more of these people.” Last year, the governor threatened to veto a bill that would have allowed illegal aliens to obtain driver’s licenses, but the legislation never made it to his desk. He actually did veto a bill that would have given illegal aliens the right to in-state tuition at public universities. He hasn’t taken a formal position on any of the federal immigration plans. “I’m against an amnesty and against anything that provides an incentive for people to come here illegally.”

A HIGHER OFFICE?

Sometime this fall, Romney will decide whether to run for reelection in 2006 or president in 2008. He most likely won’t do both. If he aims high, he could become the most prominent governor (or recent ex-governor) in the GOP field–an important position to occupy, given that senators so rarely rise above their station in Washington. As Gillespie says, “Our party likes governors.”

Romney has been plotting his moves for nearly a year, if not longer. He won a prominent speaking role at last summer’s GOP convention, and used his time offstage to do things like invite the Iowa delegation to a private party aboard an aircraft carrier. “If he runs for president, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with in the Iowa caucuses,” says Larry McKibben, a state senator who met Romney in New York last year. McKibben was locked in a tight race, and Romney’s Commonwealth PAC donated to his campaign. Romney also traveled to Iowa to rally Republicans. “We’ve given to 225 candidates and organizations in 17 states,” says Trent Wisecup, who runs Commonwealth PAC.

This is how the foundations of a presidential campaign are laid, and Romney’s maneuverings are anything but secret. It’s gotten to the point where the governor can barely leave Massachusetts without pundits checking their 2008 calendars to see if he’s bound for an early-primary state. There’s nothing strange about Romney’s visiting Michigan–his place of birth and home to many relatives–but even his trips there have become increasingly public. In March, he addressed a group of Republicans in Livonia. “Everybody thought he was presidential. Our donor community was really impressed,” says Saul Anuzis, who heads the state party. “There were some questions about where he stands on social issues.”

If Romney does declare for the White House, those questions will linger. Yet he’s almost certain to run as an avowed pro-lifer. “My political philosophy is pro-life,” he says now–a rhetorical construction that probably would not have escaped his lips when he was appealing to Massachusetts voters. “He’s been a pro-life Mormon faking it as a pro-choice friendly,” says adviser Murphy.

Can Romney succeed as an authentic pro-lifer? It will depend in large measure on who competes against him. Early signs suggest that the slot of pro-life purist is currently vacant. None of the top-tier 2008 contenders–George Allen, Bill Frist, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain–fits the bill perfectly. (Jeb Bush might, but he says he’s not running.) No matter what, though, Romney can expect to come under vigorous attack. When he spoke to Republicans in the Wolverine State, for instance, Gary Glenn of the American Family Association of Michigan circulated a letter condemning his alleged “support of legal abortion-on-demand.” Romney can expect a lot more of this–it is perhaps a bigger problem for him than his Mormonism.

Which is not to say his faith won’t be debated. In 1999, a Gallup survey discovered that although few Americans said they wouldn’t vote for a Jewish candidate (6 percent) or a Catholic one (4 percent), 17 percent ruled out supporting a Mormon. Massachusetts Democrats have made sure voters know that the Mormon church didn’t lift its ban on ordaining blacks until 1978, and that it still doesn’t ordain women at all (which makes it no different, in this regard, from the Catholic church). In a GOP primary, the surrogates of other Republican candidates probably will emphasize Mormonism’s doctrinal oddities, such as its claims about extra-Biblical revelation. There’s no telling how this will play out, though one expert on evangelical politics suspects that it might amount to little. “I think evangelicals will put aside theological differences if they believe someone’s on the right side of the culture war,” says Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “Voters will care more about what a candidate believes about gay marriage.” It’s even possible to think that Romney’s Mormonism could become a hidden asset, giving him access both to funds from around the country and to votes in states such as Arizona (where many Mormons live).

There may not be much that Romney can do about his Mormonism, but there is a possible solution to his pro-life dilemma. Owing to its religious dimension, the right-to-life movement welcomes converts–it even celebrates them, as in the case of Norma McCorvey, the “Jane Roe” of Roe v. Wade fame. Ronald Reagan once liberalized California’s abortion laws (to his later regret), though he never made anything like the categorical pro-choice promises of Romney. What Romney must do now is convince pro-lifers that his conversion is not born of convenience, but of conscience. He needs a performance akin to Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union address in 1860. Whereas Lincoln had to demonstrate to sophisticated New Yorkers that he was no yahoo from the backwoods of Illinois, Romney will want to show the heartland that he’s no moral relativist from the Northeast. It’s a tall order, and it may be worth noting that George Romney’s presidential candidacy sank when he tried to explain his shifting views on Vietnam (which were changing from pro-war to anti-war). But perhaps the son can succeed where the father failed.

“Being a conservative Republican in Massachusetts is a bit like being a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention,” joked Romney in a speech to South Carolina Republicans in February–on Presidents’ Day, as it happened. That may be true, but it’s equally true that the time is fast approaching for Romney to convince the cattle ranchers that he’s got the beef. If the governor-who-won’t-cuss pulls it off, conservatives may find themselves embracing a slogan heard around Salt Lake City during the Olympics three years ago: “Mitt Happens.”

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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