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Swift’s surprise
Now it’s time for Romney to define himself

TO PARAPHRASE MARK TWAIN: if you don’t like the politics in Massachusetts, just wait a minute. Even by Bay State standards, however, Governor Jane Swift’s withdrawal from the governor’s race just hours before Republican multimillionaire Mitt Romney declared his candidacy was a stunner.

Not since 1998, when Democratic congressman Joseph Kennedy took himself out of the running for governor, has the state political scene been so roiled.

In the years to come, political insiders may still be savoring — with the malicious glee that is a hallmark of our political culture — Swift’s endorsement by former senator Edward Brooke and ex-governor William Weld.

That Swift couldn’t short-circuit their much-needed jolt of support just the day before she pulled the plug on her candidacy is perhaps yet more proof that Swift, despite flashes of spunk, isn’t a prime-time player.

There is something admirable, even endearing, about the willingness of these old warhorses — one in dignified retirement, the other in the midst of a very public second adolescence — to stand by their woman. But those who hailed Weld’s endorsement of Swift may have overstated his influence. Weld’s golden-boy veneer is wearing rather thin these days, as is his legacy. If he has bequeathed anything to his party and the Commonwealth, it is a sense that when the going gets tough, the smart — and the self-serving — get out of town. That’s certainly true of him, as well as his one-time lieutenant and successor Paul Cellucci.

A look at the numbers suggests that Swift was on the fast track to political retirement in any case. Just days before her exit, a Boston Herald poll showed the still-undeclared Romney besting her by 63 points.

But rather than suffer defeat in the September primary or withdraw with a modicum of Emily Post–like good taste sometime after next month’s Republican state convention, Jane decided to stick it to Mitt. It was a passive-aggressive ambush. Her timing was more telling than her words. And her message was clear: you want it, you’ve got it, now deal with it.

Swift’s surrender robs Romney’s candidacy of the royalist air of inevitability that was building around it. Sooner rather than later, he will have to grapple with the twin legacies of 12 years of Republican gubernatorial rule: administering and covering up the multi-billion-dollar Big Dig deficit and sharing responsibility for a fiscal crisis that looks like it will be even bigger than those of 1980 and 1990 combined.

Even for someone as smooth as Romney, that looks damned inconvenient. Now that he is the undisputed GOP standard-bearer, will he rebuff those party stalwarts who helped get Massachusetts into its current mess? Also of interest will be how he deals with the candidacies of the two men seeking the nomination for lieutenant governor, Swift chief of staff Patrick Guerriero and fellow multimillionaire James Rappaport. One is a lightweight; the other is political deadweight.

But perhaps the greatest challenge facing Romney and his advisers, now that Swift has dumped the nomination in his lap, will be maintaining the perception that he is a political outsider. Outsider status is a priceless commodity in this age of pervasive disaffection. On the national stage, it propelled so disparate a crew as Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and — more arguably — even Bush the younger into the White House. Here in Massachusetts, both Democrat John Silber and Weld clinched their parties’ primary elections in 1990 by styling themselves mavericks.

There is, of course, a bit of sleight of hand to this "outsider" business. Of all the candidates from both parties, three can stake such a claim: Romney, for sure, but then again he was the only Republican ever to mount a meaningful challenge to Senator Ted Kennedy; Democrat Steve Grossman, but for years he served behind the scenes as an influential party official; and Professor Robert Reich, who may be stationed in academia, but did serve as US secretary of labor, after all. (Warren Tolman, in spite of his admirable run as the Clean Elections candidate, will still be tarred — unfairly, we think — with the brush of Beacon Hill service.)

But while they are not novices, Romney, Grossman, and Reich can credibly claim to be, by State House standards, politically chaste. They have had no part in the compromises — base or noble — and cronyism that alienate so many voters. (Not to get ahead of the race; at this point, no one should underestimate Birmingham’s well-financed candidacy, or the creative coupling of O’Brien with former congressional candidate Christopher Gabrieli, who together are running as a ticket.)

And there’s the rub. Romney was banking on running for months against the Swiftian status quo. But by November, Romney will be the status quo — at least the GOP version of it.

Romney has yet to stake out clear positions on any key issues. His first order of business should be to clarify where he stands on a woman’s right to choose. During his Senate run, he supported the legalization of RU-486, which induces abortion, and said that he recognized Roe v. Wade as the law of the land. But he would not support efforts to legislatively codify the reproductive rights granted to women by the Supreme Court. In Utah, where he headed up the Winter Olympics, his public statements made his position even more ambiguous. It’s time for Romney to clear up in much more than a sound bite where he stands.

It is only a matter of time before his position as a bishop in the Mormon Church becomes an issue. His high rank in his church makes him more than a private believer. He would serve his candidacy and the public best by clarifying in the early stages of his campaign how his political beliefs differ from his church’s, especially on issues relating to women and the gay and lesbian community.

If his former positions on crime are still intact, Romney should feel quite at home with John Ashcroft, the right-wing US attorney general. In 1994, he championed abolishing parole, limiting probation, and enacting the death penalty. Where does he stand today?

On economic issues, Romney’s candidacy should bring a greater degree of clarity to the race. His background as a venture capitalist, not generally known as the kindest and gentlest of business folk, certainly gives him the authority to speak about the creation — and elimination — of jobs and economic development. But as the corporate scandals engulfing Enron and Arthur Andersen play themselves out, how will his boardroom orientation resonate? How will it stack up against, say, Reich’s tenure at the US Department of Labor, where he managed to raise the minimum wage despite indifference — if not outright opposition — from the White House? Or how will it compare with Grossman’s experience running a successful fourth-generation family business with a record for retaining, not replacing, workers?

Mitt Romney, the race is on. Welcome to the frontrunner’s position.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters[a] or post your thoughts here in the Phoenix Forum.

Issue Date: March 21 - 28, 2002
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