THERE ARE THREE ingredients to a successful state-of-the-whatever speech: 1) crowing over past accomplishments; 2) defusing potential negatives by acknowledging them and giving them a positive spin; and 3) talking about how bright the future will be if voters get behind the politician-in-question’s agenda.
In an eight-day stretch earlier this month, the state’s three most influential pols offered their respective variations on this tried-and-true formula. In an address from the House chambers on January 7, House Speaker Tom Finneran offered a laundry list of the legislature’s achievements throughout the 1990s; vowed that the state’s current fiscal woes could be overcome through wise decision-making; and called for job creation, a long-term expansion of early-childhood-education programs, and increases to the state’s housing stock. On January 13, in John Hancock Hall, Boston mayor Tom Menino took credit for pending legislation that would prevent big property-tax increases; cast his opposition to pay-raise demands from the city’s unions as a case study in fiscal responsibility; and predicted thousands of new jobs, a seamless Democratic National Convention, and a revised school-assignment plan. And also from the House chambers, on January 15, Mitt Romney proudly cited reforms that took place during his first year in office; exhorted his listeners to follow the "road to reform" despite lingering economic problems; and advocated job growth, a sweeping new educational initiative, and an increase in housing production.
The speeches shared some noteworthy similarities. For example, Romney and Menino both told us they love their jobs, and Romney and Finneran seemed like-minded on the housing issue. Some differences jumped out as well. Romney said reforming the state’s unemployment-insurance system was the key to new job growth, while Finneran said that same goal could best be accomplished by overriding Romney’s vetoes of parts of an economic-stimulus plan passed last year. And while Menino and Finneran struck the occasional critical note, neither gave the kind of I’m-coming-to-get-you message that Romney sent to Massachusetts Turnpike Authority chair Matthew Amorello, who, along with his agency, will apparently succeed former UMass president Bill Bulger as the governor’s anointed nemesis in the year ahead. ("Our choice is this," Romney said of his proposal to merge the Turnpike Authority with the Highway Department. "Do we waste $20 million of taxpayer money every year on two highway departments? Or do we invest in scholarships, schools, and teachers?")
Ultimately, though, these obvious differences weren’t as telling as a larger but subtler discrepancy. In addition to identifying the big issues for 2004, these three state-of speeches offered some insight into the way the minds of the state’s most influential politicians work. And they showed why Mitt Romney, intelligent and telegenic though he may be, is a truly ominous political phenomenon.
BUT FIRST, a few examples of why Menino, and, yes, Finneran, aren’t. Sixty seconds into his 2004 State of the City address, Tom Menino got personal. "I’m not a fancy talker; you all know that," he told the audience. When Menino made this confession — the same one he’d offered, almost verbatim, in his 2003 speech — it was easy to wince. After all, with the Menino era now stretching into its 11th year, his average-Joe, urban-mechanic shtick isn’t as fresh as it used to be.
On another level, though, Menino’s hackneyed line was reassuring. It hinted that, even with two and a half terms under his belt, the mayor remains aware of his weaknesses, and criticisms of his leadership style still register. His rejoinder to the picketers massed outside John Hancock Hall, who were protesting his refusal to grant pay raises to city union employees, conveyed the same point. Menino knew he was being painted as "The Democrat Who Hates Unions," as one popular sign put it — and he wanted to set the record straight. "I’ve always gone to bat for the unions," he asserted at one point. "But if I have to be the last man standing between those municipal union leaders and the taxpayers’ money — well, that comes with my job description." Deviating from the prepared text of his speech, a visibly emotional Menino concluded by thanking members of the audience for crossing the picket lines, something no city councilor was willing to do. "You don’t know how much I appreciate you being here tonight," he remarked. It’s obvious the mayor believes he’s doing the right thing by standing his ground in the impasse with the city’s unions. But it’s also obvious that it hasn’t been easy.
You might think Tom Finneran — who, thanks to his autocratic leadership style and blend of social and fiscal conservatism, has long been a favorite target of Massachusetts progressives — would have learned to tune out the scathing criticisms that regularly come his way. But judging from his 2004 address to the Commonwealth, the Speaker, too, remains cognizant of his detractors. Before launching into his speech, Finneran, who had recently undergone hip surgery and hobbled up to the rostrum on crutches, joked about his battered public image. Just before his operation, he told the audience, the switchboard at Mass General had been "overwhelmed with hundreds of volunteers from the public who wanted to be in on the anesthesia." On a more serious note, Finneran closed his speech with a forceful rebuttal to Mitt Romney’s central political premise — namely, that the State House is dominated by self-absorbed bureaucrats who revel in waste and mismanagement, and who need an outsider to whip them into shape.
He did it with a deceptively mild anecdote. Last year, Finneran told his audience, he and Romney met to discuss the class of 2003’s unexpectedly strong performance on the MCAS. (Eighty-nine percent of high-school seniors graduating last year passed the test in three tries or fewer.) Romney said he planned to hold a press conference on the subject, and the two men parted ways. Returning to his office, Finneran said, he pondered the legislative work — beginning with 1993’s Massachusetts Education Reform Act — that had paved the way for the students’ accomplishments:
I thought about the lives which we are improving, and I murmured a quiet thank-you to the individuals who had brought us to this point of spectacular achievement and promise in Massachusetts. Names such as Tom Birmingham, William Bulger, Paul Cellucci, Charles Flaherty, Fran Marini, Mark Roosevelt, Jane Swift, Bill Weld, and many others not here today. All of you.... Yes, ladies and gentlemen, those men and women that I mentioned, they were men and women — believe it or not — of Beacon Hill, of the State House, of politics. They were also leaders with vision, with strength, and with character. They brought forth reforms and, more importantly, they brought forth results.... We should therefore, then, carry their work forward, carry their dream forward.
This soliloquy went largely unnoticed by the press, but it was the rhetorical high point of Finneran’s speech. Note, especially, his references to former Senate president Birmingham, who aspired to be governor before losing to Shannon O’Brien in 2002’s Democratic primary; to Bulger, Romney’s favorite target in 2003; and to Swift, whose gubernatorial dreams were dashed when Romney swept in to play the role of GOP savior. In a speech that had focused on policy specifics — in addition to identifying the aforementioned priorities, Finneran lauded Romney’s commitment to affordable housing and vowed to override the governor’s economic-stimulus vetoes — the Speaker closed, essentially, by telling Romney to cut the anti–Beacon Hill crap.
Finneran’s message was echoed by an even blunter one from Senate president Robert Travaglini, who — taking the unusual step of giving a press conference one day before the governor’s address — urged Romney not to use "reform" as a cover for politically motivated attacks. Taken together, these remarks amounted to a collective shot across the bow from the state’s Democratic leadership. Romney must have noticed — but you wouldn’t have guessed it from his State of the State address. Romney led his January 15 speech with a crash course in Reform 101. ("When we politicians forget that the people come first, we forget the great lesson of America," the governor said. "And we begin to hear calls for reform. Quite simply, reform is about putting people first.") He plugged his new "Legacy of Learning" initiative, which would renovate the state’s deteriorating schools, fully fund kindergarten in Massachusetts’s weakest school districts, and mandate that parents in those districts take compulsory parenting classes in return for this largesse. He promised to increase local-aid allocations and plugged the need for auto-insurance reform. But unlike Menino and Finneran, Romney didn’t address criticisms of his agenda or defend his conviction that a state can and should be run as a business. And he certainly didn’t make fun of himself.
This last might seem like a trivial point. As shown by the way Romney carried himself throughout his speech — rushing from sentence to sentence with a minimum of dramatic pauses, smiling and nodding like a proud pupil whenever the audience burst into applause — our governor is an exceedingly earnest man. Maybe he just can’t do self-deprecatory. Furthermore, some observers suggest that Romney’s great asset as a politician is the almost monomaniacal way he stays on message, catering to his suburban-independent core constituency and making little effort to conciliate die-hard Democrats. Romney’s administration "doesn’t need them," one political insider argues. "They’re never going to get a lot of those people." So, the thinking goes, Romney gives the I-495 crowd what they want to hear by pounding his reformist script home again and again and again. (In a speech of less than half an hour, the governor used the word "reform" a dozen times and some variation of the phrase "putting people first" seven.)
That may be. But it’s hard not to wonder if Romney’s inability to laugh at himself and his refusal to acknowledge criticism — even if it’s only to dismiss it — suggest more than a commendable political focus. To do either of those things, Romney would need to get outside his own head; he’d need to see himself, if only briefly, as others see him. Maybe it’s his certainty about the righteousness of his agenda that keeps this from happening. But maybe there’s a bigger problem. What if Romney — after growing up wealthy and building a career as a venture capitalist — simply lacks the ability to empathize? Again, the contrast between his state-of speech and those given by Menino and Finneran is telling.
Menino, for example, tempered his optimistic tone by acknowledging the grim economic realities many continue to face. "The fog may be lifting, but we’re not out of it yet," he said. "Families are hurting. The state is hurting. We’ve suffered serious job loss." Finneran made the same point more expansively: "More than 170,000 people have lost their jobs since early 2001. Their mortgages are at risk, their college-tuition plans have gone completely up in smoke, their car payments are probably one step ahead of the repo man, their credit cards are maxed out, and their investments — if they had any at all — have been depleted during the long course of this recession." And Romney? True, he cited the need for affordable housing and noted that auto-insurance premiums cause families throughout Massachusetts to "struggle." But he did so in a decidedly abstract manner, and one got the sense that, at bottom, the governor simply cannot imagine what it’s like to exist in a state of profound economic distress. "These are still difficult times. We still face deficits. We still face hard choices," he said on January 15. He didn’t seem overly worried, though: "But if we stay on the road of reform, placing the interests of people first, we can do some good things this year. Some very good things!" Nice to know everything will be okay.
THAT DOESN’T mean Romney’s address was the weakest of the bunch. Far from it. But on a deeper level, Romney’s speech raised cause for concern. Ideally, political leaders should be people eager to engage the world around them, individuals capable of processing new information and rethinking their positions even as they remain true to their basic principles. It’s not clear Romney can do that. One gets the sense that he moves through each day repeating his mantra to himself — "Reform is putting people first! Reform is putting people first!" — and that anything that doesn’t conform to that script is summarily discarded.
It would be heartening if the state’s top-ranking official showed, somehow, that he knows some aspects of his political vision are disturbing to a substantial portion of the state’s electorate. And it would be heartening — even as he hews to his no-new-taxes line and touts "reform" (again) as a panacea — if he could demonstrate a genuine appreciation of the harsh economic realities still facing many of the state’s citizens. Mitt Romney had a chance to reassure on both counts last week, and he blew it. Maybe that’s because he has no intention of ever doing so.
Adam Reilly can be reached at areilly[a]phx.com
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Issue Date: January 23 - 29, 2004
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