Paul Begala:What's Mitt Romney Hiding in His Record as Governor

Jae C. Hong / AP Photos

In his speech on April 24 kicking off his general-election campaign, Romney began, sensibly enough, by promising to tell us a little bit about himself. He bragged about his picture-perfect family. He spoke with pride of how his father had lifted himself from struggling salesman to CEO and governor. Then he recounted his time as a businessman, helping build companies like Staples and Bright Horizons. Finally, he launched into how Barack Obama couldn’t organize a one-car parade and how he (Romney) would make a much better president.

Wait a minute, Mitt. You missed something. Family: check. Wealth: got it. Gonna be a keen president: right. Wasn’t there something else on the résumé? Oh, yeah: Mitt Romney served as governor of Massachusetts.

It’s weird. Most governors who seek the presidency can’t shut up about how great their states are. Right now, there’s an even-money chance that Bill Clinton is telling someone that Hope, Ark., produces the biggest, juiciest watermelons in the world. But not Mitt. In the most important speech of his presidential campaign thus far, he ignored the only time he has ever held public office.

That is a mistake. Romney should be defining his record in Massachusetts before his opponents can define it for him. Two days before Romney’s kickoff speech, appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press, Obama strategist David Axelrod began carpet-bombing the Massachusetts record, noting that Romney is touting his business acumen, but also that he did the same when he ran for governor. “He said, ‘I’m going to get the economy moving again. I’m a businessman. I know how to create jobs.’ [The state] went from 37th in the nation in job creation to 47th in the nation in job creation. So we’ve tested the Romney acumen when it comes to creating jobs, and he’s been found wanting.”

Perhaps that’s why Romney doesn’t dwell on his record as governor. His state really was 47th in job creation, behind only Ohio and Michigan, both of which were being ravaged in the manufacturing meltdown, and Louisiana, which had been devastated by Katrina. Romney even trailed Mississippi and Alabama in job growth, breaking the iron law that Mississippi and Alabama have to be last in pretty much everything except cockfights and kissin’ cousins. While the country as a whole enjoyed 5 percent growth, Romney’s Massachusetts grew at 0.9 percent.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Romney sold himself to the voters as a turnaround artist—a CEO who could lure jobs to the Bay State. He pledged to use his business skills to “encourage businesses to come grow and thrive in the most robust portion of the economy, Massachusetts.” Not so much.

Romney’s economic failure in Massachusetts is especially problematic because the central premise of his presidential campaign is the same as it was when he ran for governor: that he can apply his business skills to our economic problems. Massachusetts was the guinea pig for Romney economics. The results weren’t pretty. In addition to almost zero job growth, the state saw a modest decline in real median income, meaning that the folks who had jobs were bringing home less.

Romney did close the $3 billion budget gap he’d inherited (although he then left a projected shortfall of up to $1 billion). The methods he used are instructive. He slashed higher education, cut revenue to local governments, and raised fees on everything from college students to mortgages, from buying a boat to opening a bar.

Romney’s cuts to education and job training were especially severe. Fees for university students shot up 63 percent as Romney hammered college funding. Robert Karam, former chair of the UMass Board of Trustees, was a Romney backer. But no more. “I think higher education really stood still” under Romney, he has said. Romney even annoyed the business community—his core constituency—by cutting job training, workforce development, and trade assistance.

The Romney recipe of cutting education and job training, forcing higher fees on the middle class, and protecting the rich from tax hikes didn’t work in Massachusetts. But his approach to health care did. Paradoxically, the best thing Romney did as governor—and it was a great thing—is the one thing he dares not talk about as a presidential candidate. Too bad, because a solid 62 percent of the folks who actually live under Romneycare—and its dreaded individual mandate—say they like it.

The Romney record in Massachusetts suggests that Romney’s campaign has it backward: instead of talking up jobs and running away from health care, Mitt ought to be bragging about Romneycare and avoiding scrutiny of the one time his economic theories were actually put to the test.