Was Mitt Romney a Good Governor?

As the Obama campaign seeks to make an issue of Romney's term in the Massachusetts state house, locals say he was neither a disaster nor a breakout success.

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Reuters

The Obama campaign's attempt to make an issue of Mitt Romney's governorship quickly descended into spectacle Thursday.

As the president's chief strategist, David Axelrod, made his case in front of the state house in Boston, he was nearly drowned out by pro-Romney hecklers chanting slogans. From the sidelines, a clean-cut young man in a blue tie blew soap bubbles. "You can't handle the truth!" Axelrod was reduced to yelling, as he leaned across the podium and strained to hear a reporter's question.

Axelrod and the gaggle of sympathetic local officials behind him argued that Romney sold Massachusetts voters the same bill of goods he's peddling now -- that his private-sector expertise would make him an ideal chief executive of the state. But his record in office, Axelrod claimed, was "alarmingly weak."

Was Romney actually a terrible governor of Massachusetts, or was this all politics? Naturally, the reality is not as simple as either side would like to claim.

Romney can't be accused of leaving the state in a shambles, local experts say, and his tenure was by no means a disaster. He left the state with one towering accomplishment -- universal health care, an achievement neither Romney nor Obama likes to mention now. But Romney fell short of his campaign pledge to change the state's political culture, stymied by a combination of entrenched interests and his own failure to cultivate relationships. And his naked positioning for national office in the latter part of his one term left a bad taste in many mouths.

"I think there's really a Romney One and a Romney Two," said Marty Linsky, a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School and former Republican state legislator. "Romney One really worked very hard to try to do what he thought was in the best interests of the commonwealth; Romney Two worked very hard to position himself to run for president of the United States."

By the end, Linsky said, "People felt they didn't know who he was. The only way to make sense of his trajectory was that he was only about himself."

THE ECONOMY

Romney took office in 2003 with the nationwide economy still in the slump that followed the tech bust and September 11. Unemployment was rising, in Massachusetts and nationally, and job growth was stagnant.

During Romney's term, these trends reversed. Unemployment declined and jobs began to rebound. But they did so in Massachusetts at a slower rate than most other states, with the result that, over the course of his governorship, the Bay State was 47th in the nation in terms of job creation. As Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, told Politifact, "Jobs grew, but they grew at an anemic rate compared to the rest of the country." Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Market Studies at Northeastern University, put it this way to the Boston Globe: "That time period was a very weak time period for the state. I'm not blaming everything on [Romney], but he didn't turn anything around."

Romney has claimed that he tried to bring small government to Beacon Hill, but here again, the record is mixed. "When I took office, I was facing a $3 billion budget deficit and an economy in a tailspin," he said at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (this was the same speech where he claimed to have been a "severely conservative governor"). "Even with a legislature that was 85 percent Democrat, I cut taxes 19 times and balanced the budget all four years. I cast over 800 vetoes and cut entire programs. I erased a $3 billion budget shortfall and left office with a $2 billion rainy-day fund."

But as Axelrod pointed out, the size of government -- both state spending and the number of government jobs -- actually grew on Romney's watch, and he avoided raising taxes largely by raising fees, on such things as vehicle registration and marriage licenses, instead. And while Romney did balance the budget for his final year in office, he left his successor with a $1 billion structural deficit.

Given that Obama is campaigning on a platform of raising taxes and increasing government spending -- er, "investment" -- you'd think Democrats would balk at criticizing some of these moves, which seem to show Romney as more of a fiscal moderate than his rhetoric indicates. But Axelrod argued that raising fees was an overly regressive way to bring in state revenue, and that in falling short of his promises Romney showed he couldn't be trusted.

"He believed that a PowerPoint presentation would solve all our problems."

"I think he did do a competent job" managing the state's finances, said Maurice Cunningham, chairman of the political science department at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. "It was spotty, and to say he didn't raise taxes when he raised fees was a semantic game. But he did come into a situation where the budget was in a bad state, the economy was in a bad state, and he maintained a balanced budget along with a fairly fiscally conservative [Democratic] speaker of the House."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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