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Human, all too human (continued)

HERE’S THE optimistic gloss on the Mass GOP’s electoral flop: if Romney runs for president four years from now — and it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t think he will — it won’t matter that his candidates went 0-for-131. After all, Republicans from other states know how tough it is in Massachusetts, so they’ll take both Romney’s achievements and setbacks with a grain of salt. "Everything is basically going according to plan," one veteran Romney watcher argues. "My guess is, Romney runs for re-election in 2006. And if he wins, it puts the finishing touches on the story: here’s a guy who won election twice in Kennedy country, who walked into Taxachusetts and held the line on taxes. He’s setting himself up for a good scenario in 2008."

Maybe Romney’s Republican peers actually won’t hold his failed party-building against him. Two weeks after his state legislative embarrassment, Romney was elected vice-chair of the Republican Governors Association. In 2005, Romney will be the group’s top fundraiser; in 2006, an election year, he’ll become chairman and serve as the RGA’s public face. In early December, Romney was the featured Republican speaker at the winter gathering in Washington, DC, of the Gridiron Club, an off-the-record schmooze-fest for journalists and political heavyweights from both parties. (Romney’s Democratic counterpart was Barack Obama, the newly elected senator from Illinois and putative party savior.)

Bear in mind, however, that Romney benefited from an absurdly favorable confluence of circumstances in 2004. Gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts; John Kerry secured the Democratic nomination; the DNC happened in Boston; the Patriots and Red Sox won championships; and Romney’s ghostwritten autobiography, Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership, and the Olympic Games, was published (see "Turnaround: A Reader’s Guide," News and Features, August 6). It was a kind of harmonic convergence for Romney’s self-promotion. The governor certainly tried to avail himself of the opportunities — jetting down to Washington to urge the US Senate to pass a gay-marriage ban, serving as an anti-Kerry takedown specialist for the Bush campaign, merging his denunciations of Kerry and his excoriations of gay marriage in a prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention in New York City.

But other than the RGA post and a chance to deliver some one-liners to the Gridiron Club, what did all this really get him? "I was there covering Romney’s speech in New York," says former Democratic consultant Michael Goldman, who now co-hosts Simply Put for Bloomberg Radio. "People went into it with very high expectations, but his speech just fell flat. Everyone said it. He went from being a really hot commodity at the convention to the buck-a-book bin." Goldman is no fan of Romney’s, but anyone who saw the latter’s RNC speech has to admit it was a disappointment. Later in the year, Romney himself seemed to acknowledge things weren’t going as he’d hoped. In October, he told the Boston Globe that he was disappointed the Bush campaign wasn’t using his services more frequently. As 2004 draws to a close, Romney is a second-tier Republican contender for the 2008 nomination, well behind front-runners John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and (should naturalized citizens become eligible to run) Arnold Schwarzenegger. And here’s the really bad news: come 2005, with Massachusetts out of the spotlight, Romney will be just another Republican governor.

With fewer external distractions — and a re-election campaign looming in 2006 — Romney might be expected to show a renewed focus on local issues in 2005. His recent proposal for providing health care to the state’s uninsured suggests this is already happening. But he may find it difficult to get anything substantive done here in Massachusetts. Democratic resentment at Romney’s traditional contempt for the legislature, and at the way he and the Massachusetts Republican Party ran the state legislative races, has been well documented. Publicly, of course, the current party line from legislative leaders is that Beacon Hill Democrats are ready to move on. "I don’t think there’s any lingering resentment, at least on the president’s behalf," says Ann Dufresne, spokeswoman for Senate president Robert Travaglini. Privately, though, some Democrats in both chambers strike an embittered note, and sound more than ready to hold a grudge.

Because the Republican presence in the State House is so anemic, Romney’s substantive victories in 2004 — e.g., keeping taxes steady, reforming the transportation bureaucracy, defeating a charter-school moratorium — were achieved only with the assent of Democratic legislators. This assent, in turn, stemmed from Romney’s use of the bully pulpit and Democrats’ knowledge that unpopular votes could be used against them in the upcoming election. Now, fresh off their recently completed electoral smackdown of Romney’s recruits, Democratic legislators have nothing to be afraid of. Many of them are pissed off. And with Sal DiMasi’s ascension as House Speaker, the legislature has taken on its most liberal bent in years. In a best-case scenario for Romney, confidence and resentment could prompt the legislature to overreach this year, sparking a pro-Romney backlash. But that’s a purely hypothetical outcome, while the governor’s newfound impotence is very real. "I don’t believe that Romney has any political capital to spend right now," one Democratic State House insider says bluntly.

Judging from Romney’s recent actions — bringing cannoli to his meetings with DiMasi and Travaglini, inviting key Democrats to his Belmont home for food and chitchat — the governor knows this, and realizes he needs to do some serious fence-mending. But even Republicans acknowledge that, unlike his predecessors, Romney struggles with the behind-the-scenes glad-handing that helps get things done on Beacon Hill. He’d better learn fast. If he doesn’t, 2005 could actually make Romney nostalgic for 2004.

Adam Reilly can be reached at areilly[a]phx.com

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Issue Date: December 24 - 30, 2004
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