BOSTON — When Mitt Romney was governor, he had a routine: Every Monday afternoon at 3, he would meet with the two Democrats who controlled the Massachusetts legislature. They rotated offices each week and, over cheese, juice and popcorn, the three negotiated the budget, taxes and health care. Sometimes they just chitchatted about movies, leaving Romney to wonder whether he had just wasted an hour.
This was how Romney governed as a Republican here on Beacon Hill, where the legislature was 85 percent Democratic. He was practical, not ideological. He was polite and formal, even in his Cabinet meetings, and kept his guard up with those outside his tight circle of loyalists. He forged relationships based on respect, but rarely trust. He sought compromise whenever possible, knowing that he would accomplish nothing if he didn’t win support from the other side.
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Romney achieved results with this approach, and he thinks he can do the same in Washington. On the campaign trail, he touts himself as a consensus builder — a leader in ways that he charges President Obama is not. Romney said he could have broken the stalemate in Congress over extending the payroll tax cut by summoning both parties’ leaders to the White House. And if they didn’t show up, he said, he would have ventured down Pennsylvania Avenue to their offices.
“A leader listens to the people who are one’s opponents — and you find ways of bringing people together,” Romney said this week while campaigning in New Hampshire. Being a GOP governor in Democratic Massachusetts, he added, “taught me I had to get along. I couldn’t attack the speaker of the House or the Senate president because I had to work with those guys to get anything done.”
This a risky proposition from anyone seeking to be the standard-bearer of today’s Republican Party, many of whose voters hunger for leaders willing to blow the place up rather than compromise. And it is especially risky for Romney, whose evolution on key issues has left many in his party suspicious of his avowed conservatism. It could, however, help him woo independent voters in a general election.
“If Romney is elected, given the position of the Republican Party in the House and the Senate, where the energy of the party is and where the broad sentiment is, if he tried to start cutting deals with Democrats, Romney would find himself without a party,” said Thomas E. Mann, a congressional historian at the Brookings Institution.
The choice for Republican voters as they begin selecting a nominee in a little over a week is between a pragmatist and more of a blow-up artist. Whom they choose will make a big statement about the future of the GOP. If they pick Romney, will Republicans be satisfied with a pragmatist, given the hard ideological currents coursing through the party’s base? If they pick a partisan warrior — former House speaker Newt Gingrich or a host of other hopefuls — will the GOP be able to withstand the collateral damage that could come?
And would either type of president be able to break the dysfunction that has seized Washington?