THE BIGGEST QUESTION in Massachusetts politics right now is why the electorate has embraced Willard "Mitt" Romney so enthusiastically. A poll by the Boston Herald published June 21 shows Romney beating Democratic gubernatorial nominee Treasurer Shannon O’Brien by 10 points. When you consider just how much Romney has in common with President George W. Bush, whom Bay State voters rejected by a two-to-one margin in the 2000 presidential campaign, Romney’s popularity is mystifying.
Consider that both men are the sons of fathers who were far more liberal than they. (Romney’s father and Bush’s father — both named George — were liberal "Rockefeller" Republicans for most of their careers.) Romney, like Bush, attended Harvard Business School, where each earned an MBA, an unusual pedigree for politicians. Both lost their first race in politics — Bush to Democrat Kent Hance and Romney to Democratic senator Ted Kennedy. Both made their reputations in the realm of sports — Bush with the Texas Rangers, Romney with the Salt Lake City Olympics. Both had to overcome legal difficulties during their respective campaigns. Both are more conservative than they portray themselves. They bristle at tough questions. Value loyalty. Are handsome. Athletic. Religious. Heck, they even share the same initial, W.
It’s not at all clear that the public actually wants a Bush Mini-Me for governor. Indeed, Romney’s success may hinge on whether the public continues to ignore just how much he has in common with the president.
DESPITE THE PUBLIC’S disenchantment with corporate America these days (thanks to Enron, Tyco, ImClone, and WorldCom, for starters), Romney has ripped a page from the Bush CEO playbook: run for office as if running a multinational business. Bush played the part of an aloof chief executive throughout the presidential campaign. During the early part of the campaign he stayed in Austin, meeting only with select conservative activists. Aides repeatedly referred to him as "the governor" so as to best convey a sense of his grand authority. Throughout the campaign and even into the post-campaign fight over Florida, Bush’s team placed a premium on keeping its candidate above the fray. Since taking office in January 2001, Bush has maintained his hands-off-CEO management style, delegating significant authority to surrogates like Vice-President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Colin Powell. The Associated Press took note of this last July in a story headlined bush ushers in corporate governance. Around the same time, the Arizona Republic lauded Bush’s "MBA style" in an editorial. And this month, New York Times reporter David Sanger opined on Bush’s "CEO approach to government" in a piece for Chief Executive magazine.
If Bush pioneered the corporate candidacy, Romney has taken it to new heights. Where the verbally challenged Bush still feels it necessary to deliver carefully scripted policy addresses in traditional oratorical form, Romney has rendered this critical way of lending gravity to politics irrelevant. His replacement for the form that has served politicians from Demosthenes and Cicero to Winston Churchill so well? PowerPoint. The Romney camp is so proud of this that Romney spokesman Eric Ferhnstrom describes such presentations as "Mitt’s trademark."
His use of the program comes across more like an affectation, however, one intended to get reporters writing — or at least thinking — about Romney as a creature of the corporate world (the public, after all, doesn’t come to Romney’s press events). So far, I’ve seen him do it twice. The first time was when he unveiled his education proposals in early June; the second occurred a few weeks later, when he gave a presentation on the Big Dig and the South Boston Convention Center. While Romney appears at home with the tool, the Romney-as-corporate-deity approach seems forced. During his Convention Center presentation, for example, when he got to a PowerPoint page displaying a grid with boxes marking whether the state should keep both the Hynes and South Boston convention centers or get rid of one of them, Romney delivered this aside: "I’ve got to be apologetic here, because as an old management consultant, we always used to put everything down into a two-by-two matrix." We get it, Mitt, we get it. You’re not just a politician playing CEO, you really are a former CEO.
But this model of campaigning has serious drawbacks. It works when sketching out the big picture, but fails when reporters and the public demand specifics. During his presidential campaign, Bush was notoriously weak when it came to answering questions, and Romney doesn’t seem much better at it. After his Big Dig/convention-center presentation, Romney offered to "respond to any questions you may have." So I asked him to comment on former governor William Weld’s decision to remove toll booths on the Mass Pike prior to the 1996 Senate campaign against John Kerry — even though, as we now know, Big Dig cost overruns were already taking place. But Romney balked. "No, I’m not going to get into that," he said. "I have not studied Governor Weld’s decision. I am not going to spend any time trying to go back over eight years, 10 years, and say, ‘Gosh, he should have done this. I wish he would have done that.’ I just don’t think it’s productive."
It might not be productive right now, but talking about political chicanery and its relationship to Big Dig finances, and explaining what he’d do differently, would be instructive for Massachusetts voters. The Big Dig is central to many of the financial problems currently plaguing the state — a fact of which Romney and his team are obviously aware. Otherwise they wouldn’t have organized a major policy presentation focusing on the massive project. That they held a significant event on the subject without touching on the underlying causes of Big Dig cost overruns and the past political leadership that allowed the project to spiral out of control tells us something about the kind of leader Romney will be. It’s probably not what he intended to convey, however.
EVEN MORE interesting than the Romney-Bush CEO campaign style, however, is their passion for faith-based institutions. Romney is a former Mormon Church stake president, a lay rank roughly equivalent to that of a Catholic archbishop, and Bush is an evangelical Christian. They are both men of faith.
That side of Romney’s political persona was in evidence two weeks ago at the Ella J. Baker Center, in Dorchester. Invited by the Reverend Eugene Rivers, Romney introduced himself to a collection of African-American community religious leaders. Romney declared his support for government funding of faith-based organizations, a key part of Bush’s domestic agenda. Unlike at many of his other appearances, where he travels with Ferhnstrom and lieutenant-governor candidate Kerry Healey, Romney entered with no entourage, accompanied only by long-time aide Spencer Zwick. During the informal "meet-and-greet" portion of the event, as well as in his talk — no PowerPoint for the faithful — Romney seemed far more relaxed than he normally is. When Rivers, for example, called out for somebody to "say Amen" during his remarks, Romney was quick to answer with "Amen," adding several shouts of "praise the Lord" for good measure. It’s hard to imagine any of the Democratic candidates engaging in this kind of religious back-and-forth. (Democratic candidate Steve Grossman, who has also accepted an invitation to speak to Rivers’s group, does at times invoke religion, such as the words of the prophet Isaiah, but not in the folksy style employed by Romney.)
In a similar vein, the Republican candidate invoked religious language to make the case that he was in the campaign for the right reasons. "I’m not in this for the glory. I had my glory at the games. Oh my goodness. Glory be," proclaimed Romney, himself sounding like a preacher. In case anyone missed that, he said later: "I’m like a preacher. I can talk all day ... I know the Gospel."
During the more formal part of his talk, Romney told the group that his wife had been instrumental in getting the local United Way to donate money to faith-based institutions and went out of his way to praise Bush’s interest in them. "I wasn’t surprised when I heard the president of the United States say that his platform was going to include finding ways to provide federal funding to efforts being run by faith-based organizations of a secular nature," he said. "I’ve spoken with the White House about it. I’m delighted by the effort by the administration now to work with groups that are making a real difference in the lives of people."
During the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush and his aides trotted out his support for faith-based institutions to make the case that Bush was a "very different" conservative and a "very different" kind of Republican. So is Romney. "I am not running for governor as a traditional Republican," he said. "Most people think of a traditional governor as being in favor of big business and the rich. The rich people can take care of themselves."
Rich people may be able to take care of themselves, but Romney and Bush seem more than willing to help them along — Romney’s assertions notwithstanding. While he has hedged somewhat on the issue of preserving the tax cut voted in by Massachusetts residents in 2000, Romney has overwhelmingly emphasized a message of curbing government excess, generally code language for cutting taxes and programs aimed at helping the poor.
Massachusetts hasn’t been kind to Bush. But if the polls are any indication, local voters may be more favorably inclined toward Bush’s Massachusetts counterpart, Romney. The only question is whether that popularity will survive as voters realize how much like Bush Romney really is.
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com