In Tuesday night’s presidential debate at Hofstra University on Long Island, Mitt Romney said, “We haven’t had the leadership in Washington to work on a bipartisan basis. I was able to do that in my state.” This repeats a claim he made repeatedly in the first debate that he worked successfully in with the Democratic state legislature in Massachusetts. “Republicans and Democrats both love America,” said Romney. “But we need to have leadership—leadership in Washington that will actually bring people together and get the job done and could not care less if—if it’s a Republican or a Democrat. I’ve done it before. I’ll do it again.”
Romney also argues that an ability to work across the aisle is essential for any president, and that it is a quality he has and Obama lacks. At the first debate, Romney said, regarding a deficit reduction deal, “I think something this big, this important has to be done on a bipartisan basis. And we have to have a president who can reach across the aisle and fashion important legislation with the input from both parties.”
Romney’s surrogates have even gone so far as to offer his bipartisanship approach as the reason he will not specify what tax expenditures he will eliminate to offset the cost of his tax cuts, arguing that he should work with Congress to identify them, rather than dictating his own preferences.
During the primaries, when Romney claimed to have been “a severely conservative governor,” he never boasted of working with Democrats.
In truth, his approach in Massachusetts was neither severely conservative nor bipartisan. Democrats in the legislature held a veto-proof super-majority. That meant Romney had no choice but to play ball with them or else he would get nothing done. Sometimes he opted for the former, as in the case of healthcare reform. Often, he opted for the latter.
Looking at Romney’s record in Massachusetts one does not see bipartisanship as an operating principle. Rather than it is a tool he uses when it is convenient. Romney was not particularly good at cultivating relationships with the Democratic legislature. Former Massachusetts House Speaker Tom Finneran told the Associated Press, “Initially [Romney’s] sense was, ‘I have been elected governor, I am the CEO here and you guys are the board of directors and you monitor the implementation of what I say.’ That ruffled the feathers of legislators who see themselves as an equal branch (of government).”
Romney’s approach to the legislature remained mostly hostile, rather than conciliatory. As NPR reports:
Romney clearly did not relish having to work with a Legislature that was 85 percent Democratic. He pushed hard during his first two years as governor to boost the number of Republicans on Beacon Hill. But that effort was a failure; Republicans ended up losing seats in the midterm elections…. Apart from health care, Romney defined success not with big-picture legislative accomplishments but with confrontation. In a 2008 campaign ad, Romney actually bragged about taking on his Legislature: “I like vetoes; I vetoed hundreds of spending appropriations as governor,” he said.
Romney issued some 800 vetoes, and the Legislature overrode nearly all of them, sometimes unanimously.
In 2005 and 2006, after Romney decided not to run for re-election but instead to seek the Republican presidential nomination, he abandoned much of his erstwhile moderation. Massachusetts pulled out the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, abandoned his smart growth policies, and reversed his prior support for abortion rights and stem cell research. Refusing to make investments in stem cell research and renewable energy—two important sectors of Massachusetts’s economy—contributed to his abysmal record on job creation.
It is also hard to reach across the aisle when you aren’t even in town. Towards the end of Romney’s tenure, he was out of the state more than he was in it. In 2006, Romney’s last year in office, he was traveling out of state for all or part more than 200 days. During his total four years he was out of the state more than 400 days. While on the road, speaking to Republican audiences, he would frequently mock Massachusetts for its liberal politics. By the time he left office, his approval ratings back home were 34 percent.
If anything, Romney’s approach in the White House would be even more partisan and polarizing. In Massachusetts, Romney was not only governing with Democratic legislature but with a liberal electorate. What he did under those circumstances could be quite different from what he would do with a Republican Congress and a national Republican constituency.
The Nation’s George Zornick made a must-read list of Romney’s seven biggest lies in Tuesday’s debate. Romney’s claim of governing in a bipartisan manner is number eight.
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