Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts record: proof of ‘strong leadership’?

at 12:00 PM ET, 06/12/2012

“Mitt Romney on Day One: the difference is strong leadership.”

-- Narration from Romney campaign video

Mitt Romney’s campaign released this ad Friday in defense of the GOP candidate’s governing background. Up to this point, the campaign’s focus seemed to be on attacking President Obama’s economic record and promising a stronger recovery should Romney win the election in November.

That all changed last week when Obama’s campaign posted a video describing the Romney governorship as a series of broken promises on jobs, taxes and debt. The Republican challenger shot back with this “Strong Leadership” video that tells a very different story about his record.

How can the two sides have such disparate takes on the same picture? Let’s take a look at Romney’s claims to see if they’re any more accurate than the rhetoric that earned two Pinocchios for the Obama team.

“As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney had the best jobs record in a decade.”

The Romney campaign based this claim on a comparison of every Massachusetts governor who held office during the past decade -- looking at the full term for each person, even if it extends past the decade mark. The list includes Jane Swift, Romney and Deval Patrick, in chronological order.

The first thing we should point out is that we’re looking at very different time frames and economic conditions for each governor.

In terms of time, Swift served about 21 months from roughly April 2001 through December 2002. She inherited the governorship when Paul Cellucci resigned the post to become U.S. Ambassador to Canada in 2001.

Romney served a full four-year term, or 48 months, and opted against running for reelection. Patrick won the governorship in January 2007, and he’s in the midst of a second term -- he has 64 months on record with the BLS.

As for economic conditions, Romney has an advantage: he’s the only governor on the list who wasn’t in office during a national recession. His term fell conveniently between two rough spells.

By comparison, the first economic downturn of the George W. Bush era took hold at about the same time Swift became governor, and the Great Recession started about one year after Patrick’s first term began.

Setting all that aside, the GOP presidential candidate definitely has the best jobs record when you look at the past “decade.” Here are the numbers, based on statewide employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Average monthly change

Swift: -6,800 jobs

Romney: +600 jobs

Patrick: -300 jobs

So Romney’s meager numbers earn him the top prize in this case, but we should note that the tenor changes if you compare his tenure with earlier times.

Let’s apply the same metric to the period before Romney left office. This time, the “decade” includes Romney, Swift, Cellucci (July 29, 1997 – April 10, 2001) and William Weld (January 3, 1991 – July 29, 1997). For what it’s worth, Cellucci took over the governorship after President Bush nominated Weld to be U.S. Ambassador to Mexico; the Senate rejected that nomination.

Here are the numbers:

Average monthly change

Weld: +2,500 jobs

Cellucci: +5,800 jobs

Swift: -6,800 jobs

Romney: +600 jobs

As you can see, Romney gets crushed by two of his predecessors. Anyone examining his employment numbers when he left office could have criticized him for having “one of the worst jobs records in a decade.”

At the end of the day, Romney’s paltry job numbers only look good within the context of the last 10 years, which represent the worst economic period for Massachusetts since the Ford-Carter-Reagan era.

“Romney reduced unemployment to just 4.7 percent.”

Romney’s campaign appears to be using the Bay State’s non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate from the last full month Romney was in office, December 2006. Indeed, unemployment stood at 4.7 percent at that time, representing a drop from the 5.6 the GOP candidate inherited.

But there’s a catch. Massachusetts had a higher unemployment rate than the 4.4 percent national average when Romney’s term ended. In fairness, the Bay State had a slightly better four-year average than the nation during Romney’s tenure: 5.1 percent for the U.S. compared to 5 percent for Massachusetts.

The point is that Romney struggled to keep up with the pack down the stretch. His state had the 29th highest jobless rate in the nation when he took office, and it rose to 18th highest by the time he left.

“He balanced every budget without raising taxes.”

We mentioned in a previous column that Romney promised not to raise taxes during one of his 2002 gubernatorial debates. Here’s what he said:

“Let me make this very clear, I will not, in my budget next year, have any tax increases. I will fight taxes at every turn. The problem with increasing taxes is it puts a burden on working families. They can’t afford it . . . I will not sign a tax increase passed by the Legislature.”

True to his word, Romney didn’t approve any general hikes in tax rates, but he did increase fees and close tax loopholes, both of which brought in additional revenue. The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimated that the former governor raised an extra $750 million per year through fees and loophole closures.

This is a matter of semantics, because Romney didn’t technically raise tax rates. But one thing should be perfectly clear: he didn’t balance the budget with tough cuts and greater government efficiency alone.

(Readers can read about Romney’s record on taxes in a past column from our biographical series on the former governor.)

“He did it by bringing parties together to cut through gridlock.”

Our colleagues at FactCheck.org already established that the Democrat-led legislature overturned about 700 of Romney’s 800 vetoes. With these numbers in mind, it’s hard to believe that the governor was seeing eye-to-eye with lawmakers.

Granted, lots of legislation passed despite serious differences between Romney and the mostly Democratic legislators. But that doesn’t mean the governor made it happen.

Democrats held a supermajority during Romney’s tenure, meaning they had a fairly easy time passing legislation -- they could overturn any veto with relative ease. As such, many bills passed despite Romney, not because of the former governor’s supposed negotiating skills.

Democrats and even some Republicans fought Romney to the end on a long list of issues ranging from minimum-wage increases to embryonic stem-cell research.

One of the most noteworthy bipartisan measures to come out of the Romney era was the Massachusetts health-care reform law that the presumptive GOP nominee never seems to mention any more -- not even when we asked his campaign to name a few of his signature bipartisan accomplishments. (This video clip of the signing ceremony shows Romney praising the late Sen. Edward Kennedy(D) for his “absolutely essential” assistance in getting the law passed.) Even so, Romney vetoed eight provisions from the bill, and the legislature overturned each one.

The Romney campaign did not respond to requests for comment on any of these quotes.

The Pinocchio Test

The new Romney ad claims the GOP challenger boasts the best Massachusetts jobs record in a decade, but it doesn’t account for the fact that his tenure fell between two national recessions that give him an advantage over the governors who directly preceded and succeeded him. Furthermore, the candidate’s lackluster employment numbers are far from best if you expand the timeline past 10 years.

The ad also failed to mention that Massachusetts had a higher unemployment rate than the rest of the nation by the time Romney left office and that it wasn’t keeping pace with other states during his tenure.

The campaign claims Romney balanced the Massachusetts budget without raising taxes, but he closed tax loopholes and raised fees to the tune of $750 million per year. It wasn’t all cuts and efficiencies that helped him close the gap.

Finally, the campaign exaggerated by suggesting that Romney worked in bipartisan fashion to cut through gridlock. The number of overturned vetoes during his tenure suggests he failed to reconcile differences with Democrats in hundreds upon hundreds of instances.

On balance, the Romney campaign earns two Pinocchios for its “Strong Leadership” ad.

Two Pinocchios

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