“I love small-business people like you,” he says, pitching himself to a crowd of about 100 people — business owners, lawyers, chamber of commerce types — crammed into the atrium of a law firm in Manchester, N.H.
Romney ticks off what he says people in business understand, about the economy and job creation and making the nation hum again, that people in government do not. It’s a seven-point pitch, eminently sensible, and after each point, like the experienced corporate team-builder he is, Romney affirms the good sense of his audience: “And you understand that in the private sector.”
“Now, in government, people tend to ignore the implications of incentives,” he says. This will turn out to be a story about helping the homeless, but he will tell it through numbers, not individuals.
In Massachusetts, he explains, he inherited a projected $3 billion deficit when he became governor in 2003 and proceeded to pore over line-item budgets looking for reductions. “Now, I wasn’t going to cut homeless support. But I wanted to see if the money was well-spent,” he says, and he came upon an unexpected category: hotels.
“And they said, ‘Well, Governor, you have to understand, if someone shows up for shelter and the homeless shelter is full, we simply tell them to go check into a hotel and we’ll pick up the bill.’ And I thought to myself” — and here he pauses before his punch line — “I bet the word gets around.” His audience chuckles.
So Romney made a simple change: The newest arrival got a shelter bed, and the person there the longest went to a hotel. Before, the state was renting an average of 500 hotel rooms a night, at a cost of $20 million per year. Afterward, that line item fell to zero. “And the tens of millions of dollars we saved we were able to use to get people into permanent housing.” This did provide a pathway to a stable, independent life, homeless advocates said.
“Incentives,” Romney exclaims, “have impact.”
And that’s it.
He doesn’t conjure a vision of a child shivering under an overpass. He doesn’t declare that what drives him is the belief that in the United States, families should not sleep on the street. He doesn’t float some bold, untested idea. But those uncertain about where to locate Romney’s core convictions — or if he has any — might consider whether they are embedded in this example.
“He’s a wonk who looked at things in a cost-effective way,” said Robyn Frost, the executive director of Massachusetts’s Coalition for the Homeless, who for two decades has been working on issues affecting the poor. Frost credits Romney for not cutting the budget for the homeless and for forming public-private partnerships that made headway on an intractable decades-old problem.