The Holy Cow! Candidate

Mitt Romney, the governor of Massachusetts, loves data, hates waste, and reveres Dwight Eisenhower. He's also the Next Big Thing in the Republican Party. But can anyone so clean-cut, so pure of character, and (by gosh!) so square overcome the "two Ms"—Mormonism and Massachusetts—to be our next president?

The annual Saint Patrick's Day breakfast is an old Boston tradition. Held in South Boston on the Sunday after Saint Patrick's Day, the event is an occasion for Massachusetts pols to sling barbs at one another between rounds of local ballads such as "Charlie on the MTA" and "Southie Is My Hometown."

This year, naturally, Governor Romney was the primary target of this heavily Democratic crowd. Speakers ribbed him for, among other things, his exploratory political trips out of state and his opposition to cloning human embryos. "I don't know if the governor knows its advantages," a Democratic state senator named Jack Hart said. "I mean, he could run for governor and for president at the same time. And then if he was to run for president, he could choose his perfect running mate: himself."

But the best one-liners at Romney's expense came from Romney. Standing at the podium to begin his remarks, he said, "Well, it's great to be here in Iowa this morning—whoops, wrong speech." He threw down a piece of paper and then continued. "Seriously, it's good to be here in Massachusetts. I'm visiting for a few days." Everybody cracked up, and from that moment the room was his. He kept up a genuinely funny line of patter—much of it self-deprecating and based on his presumptive aspirations to higher office—for eight minutes; in comedy terms he killed. (Sample joke: As a Mormon, he said, "I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman and a woman and a woman.")

Not so long ago it would have been hard to imagine Mitt Romney—a Midwest-raised Mormon businessman—joking around with a bunch of Irish and Italian Democrats at a political backslapping session in Boston. If he had initially hoped to go into politics, he would have been best served by staying in Michigan, where Romney was a household name. Instead Willard Mitt Romney (he shed the Willard in kindergarten) went from Bloomfield Hills to Palo Alto (he began his undergraduate education at Stanford University) to France to Provo, Utah (he completed his undergraduate education at Brigham Young University, finishing first in his class), before coming with his young wife, Ann, to Massachusetts in 1971, to attend Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School. There he overlapped with George W. Bush. ("We shared one class," Romney told me. "I don't recall that either one of us stood out in that class. I don't recall anything he said, and I don't imagine he remembers anything I said either … If I knew where he was gonna go, I would have been on him like white on rice.")

After graduation from HBS, Romney entered the burgeoning field of consulting, and in the late 1970s he landed at Bain & Company. Until then the business of consulting had been kind of hit-and-run: a firm would take on a client to help with a particular issue, provide some analysis, and then send the client on its way. Bain did things differently. Bainies, as they were known, became deeply involved with the companies they advised, learning everything about their businesses, the industries they worked in, and the competitors they were up against. When an analysis was finished, Bainies didn't pack up and leave. They stayed with the company, making sure it continued to apply the lessons it had learned.

Romney distinguished himself at Bain, and in 1984 he was asked to lead a venture-capital spinoff. Starting out as a modest enterprise, with a handful of people from Bain & Company and roughly $30 million, Bain Capital was soon wildly successful. Among the first companies it invested in was Staples, an office-supply store conceived by one of Romney's business-school contemporaries, which had been shunned by some venture capitalists; Romney and others saw the potential. In 1986 Staples, Incorporated had one store. Today it has nearly 1,700.

But while Bain Capital flourished, its progenitor, Bain & Company, struggled, and by 1990 it was on the verge of financial collapse. Romney was called back to the firm, where he restructured the debt, persuaded all but one of the partners to stay for at least a year, and installed a new leadership team. The company survived; and as a symbolic gesture, Romney drew a salary of only one dollar a year. (As governor of Massachusetts he draws no salary at all. A lesson he says his father taught him is that one shouldn't get involved in public life until it is a question of service rather than employment.)

Romney took more than skills and knowledge away from Bain; he also acquired a way of thinking, a Weltanschauung—call it the Bain world view. He sees waste and inefficiency in almost moral terms; in fact, his crusade against inefficiency is practically a governing philosophy. "Government inefficiency wastes resources and places a burden on citizens and employers that's harmful to our future," he told me. "And anytime I see waste, or patronage, it bothers me."

"As a nation we are in a global economic race with huge populations in Asia," he continued, "where economies are growing at extraordinary rates with highly educated, highly motivated, and in many cases highly entrepreneurial individuals. Anytime government puts waste and excessive burdens of regulation and unnecessary taxation on its citizens, it's putting us behind in that race."

Romney loves the very vocabulary of business—the rhythm of charts and diagrams and boardroom presentations. One afternoon, standing in a newly built Silver Line bus station in South Boston, he introduced a transportation plan that he hoped would be a blueprint for the next twenty years. Speaking in terms that only a consultant could love, he said, "Let me now take a journey with you in … PowerPoint."

As reporters flipped through their handouts, I found myself agreeing with Phil Johnston, the influential Massachusetts Democrat, who had told me that Romney "thinks politics consists of making announcements and pronouncements" and never actually connects with his constituents, because his presentations never descend from a distant level of almost mathematical analysis.

Romney concedes his love of analysis, up to a point. "I like data," he says. He sees issues such as transportation and health care and education as analytical problems to be solved—things that can be tinkered with and fixed, like an unprofitable company.

As CEO-governor Romney makes at least theoretical sense at times, especially when he's talking about budget and fiscal issues. But when he moves beyond business principles to innovate in social policy, things can get kind of weird. Consider, for example, his proposal to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts. The Romney version of the death penalty, he has said, will be foolproof "to the extent that is humanly possible," because it will use, among other things, a panel of scientific experts and additional judicial safeguards to determine guilt beyond any shadow of a doubt. That's an expensive and cumbersome plan from a man who says he wants government to run with extreme efficiency. It also appears doomed to fail in the state legislature.

I asked Romney why he would spend political capital crusading for the death penalty when his plan would cost so much to put in place and in any event will most likely never be voted into law. "The first answer is—and I think it's really hard for people to believe and understand this—because I said I would during the campaign. More than once during gubernatorial debates I was asked, 'Do you support the death penalty?' Yes. And then people said, 'But how are you going to keep from executing the innocent?' And I said by having a higher standard of care—something beyond 'reasonable doubt.' It should be clear and convincing evidence. Scientific evidence."

The importance of using evidence and rigor and logic and data is something Romney gets in part from the Bain world view. But the importance of doing what you say and, significantly, of being careful what you say is something he learned from his father.

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Sridhar Pappu is an Atlantic correspondent. His profile of Geraldo Rivera appeared in the June issue.

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