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Obama’s Attack On 'Mittachusetts' — Will Romney’s Record As Governor Hurt Him?

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Mitt Romney shakes hands as he walks into the House Chambers during inaugural ceremonies at the State House in Boston in 2003. (AP)
Mitt Romney shakes hands as he walks into the House Chambers during inaugural ceremonies at the State House in Boston in 2003. (AP)

The Obama camp let slip the dogs of war. Well, one dog anyway. President Obama's strategist, David Axelrod, held a press conference Thursday on the State House steps, attacking Mitt Romney’s record as governor.

It seemed odd that a strategist would be the out-front leader, with pols lined up behind him, announcing that the campaign strategy will shift focus to the opponent’s gubernatorial record. Apparently the bash-Bain strategy has been shelved — at least for a while.

Will Romney’s record as governor become a hot, cutting issue?

In 1988, Mike Dukakis was surprised to see his “Massachusetts miracle” turn into the Massachusetts mirage. The George H. W. Bush campaign swooped in and drew attention to Boston Harbor being the dirtiest in the nation, and Bush returned to accept an endorsement from the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association. Dukakis saw his 17 point lead in the polls shrivel, and ultimately he tanked, so to speak.

But I don’t think the Romney record will be a cutting issue, for many reasons…

1.) Romney hasn’t been boasting about his four years as governor. It’s hard to deflate a balloon that has little air in it. Of course, during the GOP nomination process Romney didn’t want to remind conservative primary voters of “accomplishments” like creating RomneyCare. And he didn’t want to draw more attention to criticism of his having appointed many Democrats to judgeships.

2.) There’s no real surprise. Dukakis didn’t anticipate, and thus didn’t prepare for the 1988 attacks. But Romney’s campaign had supporters on the State House steps before Axelrod showed up and prior to the event issued a statement comparing Romney’s record to Obama’s.

For example: "Massachusetts’ Unemployment Rate Fell From 5.6 Percent To 4.7 Percent During The Romney Administration vs. President Obama’s Advisors Predicted The Stimulus Would Lower Unemployment To 6 Percent Today — But It Remains Above 8 Percent."

3.) Romney’s record makes him look more moderate. The Obama strategy a few months ago was to portray Romney as a typical conservative Republican. But now they’re attacking him for raising fees and fines as governor and spending too much money. Doesn’t that undercut the argument that, if Romney is elected president, he will be uncompromising and force austerity measures through Congress?

4.) Massachusetts wasn’t known as the Romney Republic.

Because Massachusetts was a liberal one-party state, Dukakis was viewed as fully responsible for inaction or bad decisions. But opinion leaders realize that when Romney was governor he had a state legislature that was almost 90 percent Democratic, so it was not as if he could unilaterally implement whatever policies he wanted.

5.) Mocking Massachusetts isn’t an option. The Obama campaign can’t go too far in making this state look like it suffered terribly under Romney. That wouldn’t be good for tourism, and it would displease Mayor Tom Menino and Gov. Deval Patrick. Indeed, Patrick, an Obama campaign co-chair, chided the Obama campaign for its criticism of Romney’s old business, Bain Capital.

“Well, I think that the Bain strategy has been distorted in some of the public discussion," Gov. Patrick said. "I mean, Bain is a perfectly fine company. They’ve got a role in the private economy. And I’ve got a lot of friends there, and on both sides of the aisle. I don’t think Bain is the point.”

6.) Democrats criticizing a Republican is not surprising. The Obama campaign released a video with numerous Massachusetts Democrats bemoaning Romney’s record as governor. They are not identified by party in the video, but the fact that they’re partisans makes the video seem less newsworthy.

Romney wasn’t a great reform governor. He was more of an incrementalist, a consensus-builder, and as presidential candidate, an opportunist. But his record as governor probably won’t scare off many swing voters. More likely, it will reassure some that he’s not going to actually do some things he promised in GOP primaries, like forcing 11 million illegal immigrants to “self-deport.” And, as he did as governor, he’d likely raise taxes as president, but call it “tax reform.”

Like many politicians, he can be, uh, flexible. Some swing voters, tired of polarization, might consider that a timely virtue. In Massachusetts in 2002, that seemed to be the case. Many voters apparently liked Romney saying, “I think the old standby definitions of who votes for which party have been blown away in this campaign. I think people recognize that I'm not a partisan Republican — that I'm someone who is moderate, and that my views are progressive.”

That is not a sound-bite you’ll see advertised by the Obama campaign... or by Romney’s.

This program aired on June 1, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Todd Domke Twitter Republican Political Analyst
Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst for WBUR.

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