Anyone who has watched the Republican candidates trading factoids—debating one another would be far too generous a description—has probably become familiar with Rick Perry’s and Jon Huntsman’s favorite: during Mitt Romney’s term as Governor of Massachusetts, the state had the forty-seventh best rate of job growth. That statistic looks even worse when you consider that Romney left office a year after Hurricane Katrina, which gives Louisiana a good excuse for ranking below Massachusetts. Romney’s feeble rejoinder is that the state’s unemployment rate was lower when he left office than when he entered.
So which statistic is more meaningful and what impact did Romney’s decisions as governor have on job growth?
The answer to the first is easy: Massachusetts’ economy performed poorly during his tenure and his defense is misleading. Massachusetts’ unemployment generally follows that of the nation as a whole, but it went from slightly better than the national unemployment rate (5.6 percent in the state versus 5.8 percent in the country) when he took office to slightly worse when he left (4.7 percent in Massachusetts versus 4.4 percent nationally). And his record is even arguably worse than that: Massachusetts lost population for two years in a row during Romney’s term. That means the unemployment number went down because the denominator shrank, but that’s hardly a sign of a growing economy. Total jobs in Massachusetts were the same when he left office as when he started and many key industries actually lost jobs.
Of course, that may not be Romney’s fault. “The curve follows the national average,” says Fred Bayles, a veteran political observer at Boston University. “Massachusetts took a little bit of a bigger hit when the dotcom bubble burst and took a little longer to recover.”
But a number of Romney’s actions did not help. Romney is accused by critics of four main failures on the job front: absenteeism and trashing his state while running for president, blocking stem cell research that could benefit the state’s strong biotechnology sector, refusing to invest in renewable energy and neglecting the state’s infrastructure.
Around the mid-point of Romney’s term, according to Massachusetts’s political experts, Romney realized he might not win re-election and began to focus on raising his national profile in preparation for a presidential run. While Romney had run to the center in liberal Massachusetts, he would need to tack right to win a national Republican primary. That meant two things: traveling the country to crack jokes for conservative audiences at Massachusetts’ expense, and flip-flopping to take conservative stances on hot-button issues from abortion to climate change. That, in turn, led to policy decisions on the environment and stem cells that may have damaged the Bay State’s economy.
“In the last few years of his term Romney was out of the state more than he was in the state,” says Bayles. “When he was running for president, the last two years of his governorship, part of his campaign rhetoric was to dump on Massachusetts. He made a conscious decision not to run for governor again and he left office with fairly lousy approval numbers.” Romney was traveling out of state for part or all of more than 200 days in his last year in office, and jokes about liberal Massachusetts were part of his stand-up routine on the stump. This was precisely the opposite of what Romney promised to do when running for office. At that time he said he would use his business experience and salesmanship to talk Massachusetts up to investors from around the country.