The State House was ground zero in the duel between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney Thursday, with each camp taking to the storied front steps to critique and tweak the rival candidate.
To hear Team Obama tell it, Romney was a complete flop during his four years as governor; to listen to the pre-buttal Team Romney cobbled together in anticipation, Romney was a job-creating wonder compared to the Jimmy Carter-esque incumbent president.
So what to make of it all? First, a couple of event observations. Conspicuous by his absence was Deval L. Patrick, our state’s popular incumbent governor and favorite Obama surrogate. Instead, the local headliner was Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray, who has roamed the state as a badly dented denizen of the land of the undead since news broke that he had been bitten by notorious public-sector vampire Michael McLaughlin. Add to the mix a long, rambling filibuster from former North Adams Mayor-for-Life John Barrett, and this observer found himself wondering: Who, exactly, picked this lineup?
The catalogue of criticisms directed Romney-ward were about what you’d expect: He didn’t pay sufficient attention to Barrett and other Democratic mayors, he cut funds for local aid and education, and his jobs record trailed most other states.
If, however, you prefer context to overkill, here are some things to consider. Yes, Romney made some budget reductions that hurt, but he was governing in a time of a sluggish economy and fiscal problems. And so, like governors of all ideological stripes, he cut spending.
But here’s the more instructive point, given the no-new-net-revenues stance Romney and the national GOP have taken regarding our national fiscal problems: Romney did about a third of his first-year budget balancing through new revenues. According to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, he raised around $750 million in new revenue for his first budget, half through a long list of fee increases, half through what he called corporate-loophole closings — but which someone more committed to linguistic precision would label business tax hikes.
“By and large they were changes in tax policy,” says Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. “One can argue the merits, but they were overall tax increases.”
The two sides also battled over respective jobs records. Romney’s surrogates claimed, as Romney himself has bragged, that he created more jobs as Bay State governor than Obama has nationally. This is an area where it’s easy to fit facts to one’s favored storyline, so here are the most relevant data: According to the Taxpayers Foundation, the state added about 20,000 private-sector jobs during Romney’s four years; as of April, there were 35,000 net new private sector jobs since Obama took office. (At a comparable time under Romney, the state economy had added some 10,600 total non-farm jobs.)
What renders the president’s overall job picture negative is the 600,000 or so public-sector jobs that have been lost. Although liberals may lament the public-sector loss, one would think conservatives would be more focused on the private-sector figures.
But honestly, the jobs comparison doesn’t tell you much that’s truly useful. Why? Because the idea that governors are responsible, beyond the margins, for the job creation or job loss in their states is misplaced. It was mostly fiction in 1988 when Michael Dukakis ran for president on the so-called Massachusetts Miracle and it’s mostly fiction now. A president’s policies have more overall economic effect than a governor’s, but even on a national level, many other factors are at play.
So how to judge Romney as governor? Certainly he doesn’t rank with Bill Weld or Mike Dukakis, the two governors who define the modern era in Massachusetts. But he was hardly a dismal failure, as Obama chief strategist David Axelrod and yesterday’s supporting cast charged. He was an above-average state CEO, but could have been considerably better if he hadn’t turned his focus nationally so early in his single term. He dealt reasonably well with tough fiscal challenges. And as he showed on Romneycare, when he set his mind to something, he could get big things done.
But count on this: You won’t hear much about his signature achievement on the campaign trail. Not from Romney, anyway.
Scot Lehigh can be reached at email@example.com.