BOSTON — One striking thing about Mitt Romney’s performance in his first presidential debate was how frequently he cited Massachusetts as a model for the country — its schools, its health care overhaul, the way its legislators coalesced on important issues regardless of party affiliation.
Romney: I like the way we did it in Massachusetts. I like the fact that in my state, we had Republicans and Democrats come together and work together… And the best course for health care is to do what we did in my state: craft a plan at the state level that fits the needs of the state.
Romney’s proud references to Massachusetts are in stark contrast to the distance he’s tried to put between himself and the state — where he was governor — since beginning his campaign for president.
For more on Romney’s change of tone, WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with Boston Globe reporter Scott Helman, co-author of the book “The Real Romney.”
Sacha Pfeiffer: Scott, this embracing of Massachusetts is a pivot for Romney, especially when you compare it to many of his public comments in the past several years — comments that suggest that he sees the time he spent here as a potential liability. So why this shift last night?
Scott Helman: Well, I think it’s pretty easy to explain. Remember, for most of the last six, seven, eight years, he’s been running for the Republican presidential nomination, and of course Massachusetts is not a very popular word in those circles.
I think last night, of course, was probably his biggest audience to date, and he’s speaking to a general election crowd now. So now Massachusetts isn’t a four-letter word. Bipartisanship, coming from a Democratic state, being successful there — all of those things are going to play much better in a general election. So I think that’s a big reason why we saw this shift in tack last night.
Also last night, he didn’t shy away from the Romneycare label, which has been so problematic for him. He said what Massachusetts did with health care reform was “a model for the nation.” But earlier in his campaigning, he’s often been on the defensive about that. What’s the political strategy behind now grabbing the mantle of health care reformer?
I think it’s largely a defensive one. You know, he has danced kind of between embracing it and rejecting it and then not talking about it at all. And I think the decision to talk about it last night is probably born out of the sense that he knew President Obama was going to talk about Obamacare, the national health care plan, and how it was modeled very much on the Massachusetts plan.
So I think Romney came prepared knowing he’d have to defend the state plan and then also why he believes the state plan is right but the federal plan is wrong. That’s a very difficult distinction, I think, for him to make.
He repeatedly used health care reform in Massachusetts as an example of how he can work in a bipartisan way. Would you remind us how that bipartisanship played out in Massachusetts when health care reform was being passed here?
I think there’s some real credit that Romney gets here on health care. This is something that Democrats have long been interested in and tried, Republicans have been interested in the past, also tried. And this was something that Mitt Romney worked closely with Ted Kennedy, of all people. He worked closely with Sal DiMasi and Robert Travaglini, the House speaker and Senate president, respectively, and he was really engaged. He was diving into the data. At one point, when things were really stuck, he even drove to the legislative leaders’ houses on a weekend. You know, interestingly, this was a big exception in many ways, because this is not how Romney had governed for much of his term. He, of course, appointed some very high-profile Democrats to his cabinet when he first was elected. He had Democrats serving on his transition teams. But when you look over his tenure, he kind of came in with that bipartisan aura, if you will, but left very, very differently. He was running against Massachusetts. He was running for president. With the exception of health care, he didn’t make much of an effort to engage himself in state issues.
Romney not only touted his own bipartisanship in Massachusetts, but he criticized President Obama for what he said was ramming through health care reform nationally without Republican support. Here’s what Romney said about that:
I like the way we did it in Massachusetts. I like the fact that in my state, we had Republicans and Democrats come together and work together. What you did instead was to push through a plan without a single Republican vote. As a matter of fact, when Massachusetts did something quite extraordinary — elected a Republican senator to stop Obamacare — you pushed it through anyway.
That’s a reference, of course, to Scott Brown. In your view, how fair is Romney’s criticism of President Obama for not getting Republicans on board with his health care overhaul plan nationally?
Well, I mean, you can certainly see why he’s saying that, and it’s true that Democrats really seized the advantage in Washington when they controlled Congress and of course the White House. And that was central to the strategy. At the same time, it’s pretty disingenuous, I think, because I think it’s clear that Republicans in Congress, from very early on, were determined to stop any kind of political initiative that President Obama had.
As you’ve said, Mitt Romney was able to achieve bipartisanship in some cases in Massachusetts. How can voters gauge whether he’ll be able to accomplish the same thing in Washington if he’s elected President?
I think it’s very much an open question because there are just too many variables. I mean, on one hand, you can look at how Romney was when he came to office in Massachusetts — very much a bipartisan figure, somebody who was not overly ideological, somebody who led from the middle. But then we’ve seen this big shift to the right. And I think it’s part of what’s keeping some people in the middle, some of those undecideds on the fence, because they may not like what’s happened the last four years, but they’re not entirely sure what they’re going to get.