Mitt Romney reframes himself as a ‘severely conservative’ governor

Let us try to tell the story of Mitt Romney, “severely conservative” governor.

Perhaps it should start in 2002, when Romney was campaigning in Massachusetts. “I’m not a partisan Republican,” Romney said. “I’m someone who is moderate, and . . . my views are progressive.”

No, that doesn’t quite fit — not with Romney’s recent re-telling of his political life story. Last week, Romney told right-wing activists that he had been a “severely” conservative governor.

Perhaps that severity didn’t show itself until the end of his single term. Back then, Romney held a ceremony complete with drummers and tootling fifes to celebrate his bipartisan health-care bill.

“It’s now my pleasure to introduce my collaborator and friend,” Romney said. “Senator Edward Kennedy.”

Perhaps not.

This much is true: Romney worked to cut spending, to stop same-sex marriage, and to bring back the state’s death penalty. But Romney also frequently sought compromises with a Democratic legislature. And when he couldn’t win, he often gave up.

Romney was conservative. But he was rarely “severe” in the eyes of those who watched him most closely.

Back then--in a time before the Tea Party made austerity cool--people thought that was the point.

“‘Severely’ conservative exaggerates his conservatism,” said David Tuerck, who runs a free-market think tank, the Beacon Hill Institute, a short walk from the Massachusetts State House. “I know that he’s desperate for everybody to believe he’s a conservative until he gets the nomination. But I’ve watched him for a long time…in his heart of hearts, he’s a guy who wants to be pragmatic.”

Romney debuted the new adverb (“severely”) at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Before that, he had spent months and millions spent to convince supporters of his conservatism--but somehow managed the opposite.

Since November, the number of Republican-leaning voters convinced that he is a strong conservative has actually dropped, from 53 percent to 42, according to a Pew Research Center poll.

So: again, from the top. Mitt Romney, severely conservative.

How does that story go?

“I cut taxes 19 times and balanced the budget all four years. I cast over 800 vetoes and I cut entire programs,” Romney told the CPAC audience.

Romney’s handling of the state’s budget crisis is one of his major achievements as governor. But his methods were not unheard-of in the state, or unusually conservative by today’s standards. The Boston Globe reported that, while Romney cut 603 people from the state payroll, one of his GOP predecessors, William Weld, had cut 7,700.

Romney fought proposals to increase personal income tax--but he did raise fees for some government services. And he also sought $128 million in new tax revenue from corporations, through what he called closing loopholes.

“I broadly call that a middle-of-the-road, balanced approach,” said Michael Widmer, of the nonpartisan Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. “That’s the approach every governor--Republican, Democrat--and legislatures have taken. Which is: some balance between new revenues and spending cuts.”

In fact, some in the state’s business community felt that Romney had leaned too hard on them.

“Proposing these kinds of tax changes is like locking a child up in a candy store,” said Brian Gilmore of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state’s largest business group. The kid, in his analogy, was the Democrat-dominated state legislature. “They’re not going to oppose it.”

The natural start to the story of a “severe” Romney governership might be his campaign promises in 2002. He made at least 60 of them, laying many out in the signature format of an ex-consultant: PowerPoint presentations.

Many of his pledges were about tweaking state government, to make it run better. It is hard to read anything severe in “establish a uniform, state-wide building code.” Or in another Romney promise: better traffic signs. “Signs that tell where you are,” one PowerPoint promised, “and where you’re going.”

In some cases, however, Romney really was promising to bring conservative ideas to a blue state. Romney wanted term limits on district judges. He wanted to abolish the expensive and troubled Turnpike Authority. And he wanted to bring back the death penalty, which the state had outlawed in 1994.

Romney worked especially hard on that last promise--and, in the process, provided the case study of his measured, technocratic approach.

Romney didn’t propose the most conservative kind of capital-punishment statute. Instead, he proposed a law so compromised that people wondered if it would ever even be used.

Romney’s bill would have allowed the death penalty only for a narrow range of especially horrific crimes. And it would have required a whole new standard of proof, that went beyond the usual “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Death sentences could only be given when there was “no doubt” at all.

“The weakness in the death penalty statutes in other states, of course, is the fear that you may execute someone who is innocent,” Romney said in 2004. “We remove that possibility.”

It didn’t work. Romney’s bill was defeated by a margin of 100 to 53 in the state House (by that point, Romney had already declared the issue was no longer a top priority). Romney also didn’t win on judicial term limits or the Turnpike Authority.

The best argument for Romney’s status as a “severe” conservative might, then, be his opposition to same-sex marriage. The state’s Supreme Judicial Court legalized it in 2003, and Romney spent years trying to un-do what the court had unleashed.

He enforced a decades-old law that decreed people could not be married in Massachusetts, if their marriage would be void in their home state. He lobbied the legislature to overturn the decision, and sued lawmakers when they stalled.

Romney ultimately lost that fight, and marriages continued. But he impressed social conservatives in his state.

“He is a severe conservative, by Massachusetts standards,” said Kris Mineau, of the Massachusetts Family Institute. “Is he as conservative as all the other conservatives out there?” Mineau said. “Maybe not.”

Romney himself has not repeated that phrase in the one campaign rally he’s had since the CPAC speech.

“Gov. Romney was a strict conservative as Governor of Massachusetts,” campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul wrote in an email this week, when asked to explain Romney’s words.

That’s a new descriptor--and it might be seen as altering Romney’s meaning. A strict conservative might be someone who sets limits on his own decisions. A severely conservative governor might also impose unpopular decisions on others.

Saul was pressed for more detail: what did Romney actually mean by “severe?”

“I just told you – he was a strict conservative,” Saul wrote back.

Staff writer Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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