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Dear Utah ... What To Expect When You're Expecting Mitt Romney

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Photograph by Associated Press, Illustration by Emily Judem/WGBH News

Dear Utah,

Congratulations! You’ve elected Mitt Romney.

Been there, done that, as they say.

This is a friendly letter from Massachusetts — until this week, the only jurisdiction to ever elect Romney to any office. We did it once, making him governor from 2003 through 2006.

You know Romney as the head of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, but we are his only previous constituents. As such, we thought we’d offer you a few observations about what Mitt Romney you’re likely to get, now that the ballots have been counted.

As you might have already sensed, that won’t exactly match the picture painted by the man during the campaign. All candidates campaign in poetry and govern in prose, as Mario Cuomo once said, but Romney is the only politician whose campaign once boasted of campaigning in easily erasable Etch-A-Sketch.

To be sure, Romney is a different guy now than he was when he was our governor. Heck, given his predilection for convenient evolution, he’s probably a different guy now than he was a few months ago, when he eagerly promised GOP state convention delegates that he would shut down the federal government to make a point about responsible budgeting.

And, being a U.S. Senator is quite different than being governor. For one thing, he won’t be around as much, being forced to interact with the public and local journalists about the local issues of the day.

Still, our experience is the only one there is. So, a few observations from our memories of the Romney years.

It’s not his fault, by design. Many people are adept at evading blame when things go wrong. Few are as careful about planning his own immunity from fault in advance.

The examples, from his political and business life — and the Winter Olympics you witnessed up close — are numerous. He gets away with them so often, he was called “Teflon Mitt” back in the day.

One example came when Romney vetoed a series of provisions in the carefully negotiated health insurance bill, later known as “RomneyCare.” He knew perfectly well that the legislature would override them all. The move allowed him to take credit for the bill’s success, while providing a “told-you-so” fallback if the plan failed or became too costly.

A flip side to this is that he gets all the credit for anything that goes right. Nobody else gets to share in Romney’s spotlight. Ask anyone in Massachusetts to even name a member of Romney’s cabinet, and watch the blank looks you get in return.

Failures get a quick and quiet burial. You saw this at the Utah GOP convention this summer: When it became clear that he was going to lose the second-round nomination vote, Romney passed on making his allowed speech and quickly left the building, insisting that he had never really expected to win anyway.

It was similar to the November 2004 election-night party, after Romney had led a big effort to gain Republican seats in the state senate. It had come a-cropper, with the party actually losing one of its handful of seats instead. Romney swept into the party, made a few quick remarks barely acknowledging that the effort had been made, and rushed out without taking questions from the press.

Romney spearheaded a serious effort to bring the death penalty back to Massachusetts, convening an impressive task force to come up with a new national model. When the resulting bill ran into resistance in the state legislature, Romney didn’t even try to negotiate for improvements, but let it get voted down while he moved onto other things.

Romney liked to kick off these potential “legacy” projects, few of which reached fruition as health insurance reform did. When they didn’t, he couldn’t pull the plug fast enough — leaving his partners in the project hanging like Wile E. Coyote 10 feet past the cliff.

He doesn’t really “get” people. Romney’s strength is digging into the weeds to fully understand a problem, or a company, or a system that has captured his interest. Most actual human beings, however, the ones unfamiliar to his personal circles, but heavily impacted by government policy, do not merit that level of scrutiny from him.

That was most evident in his dealings with gay and lesbian couples during his governorship. Although he had given no indications of anti-LGBT hostility when campaigning, he took to it as it became a big state and national issue in 2004. It never seemed to cross his mind that the homosexuals had actual feelings, once reportedly telling the lead plaintiffs in the same-sex marriage case, “I didn’t know you had families.”

You might recall a similar disinterest in what he termed during the 2012 Presidential campaign the “47 percent” of Americans whose dependence on government help made them automatic Democratic voters.

He once held an informational meeting at a Boston church, to discuss his education ideas with a packed, angry, nearly all-black audience. He seemed genuinely to not understand that his constant references to the ideas of white conservatives at the Manhattan Institute were not helping.

Romney constantly proposed spending cuts or structural reforms, some of which took effect, without really understanding their effect. Most notably, his huge local funding cuts forced towns to send property taxes soaring. When refusing to pay funding due to public defenders, he said that attorneys should offer those services pro bono.

He sometimes gets his man. Romney could be surprisingly effective at times going after an enemy, despite his political disadvantages in Massachusetts — most importantly a lack of allies in a state where a web of power players have mastered the art of political maneuvering.

Few knew that game, or played it longer, than William Bulger. Yet, Romney succeeded in forcing Bulger out as president of the University of Massachusetts.

Later in his term, Romney undertook a prolonged effort to fire Matt Amorello, head of the powerful Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. It took a law suit, emergency legislation, and a death from a tunnel panel collapse, but after more than a year Romney finally got Amorello to resign.

This might prove instructive to those in Utah wondering how Romney might take on not just President Donald Trump, but various Trumpian cabinet members or even fellow senators.

Romney’s instinct is usually to wage these battles quietly, behind closed doors — allowing him to avoid public failure but claim credit for success. But, when he does decide to really go to war, he can surprise you with his determination and political skill.

He means well. It’s easy to skewer Romney. But there are real reasons why he’s had success and why he has plenty of loyal followers who would drop everything to help his latest endeavor.

First among those traits, from the perspective of an elected public official, is Romney’s genuine belief in himself as a good guy.

You won’t need to worry about your new senator being on the take. He won’t put up with scandal or misbehavior around him, either. His political calculations are always, in his mind, to advance himself to a position where he can serve people even better.

That’s not the worst thing in a politician.

Besides, if it doesn’t work out, he’ll probably just move on to another place and forget all about you. At least, that was our experience with Mitt Romney.

Good luck!

— Massachusetts

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