Ben Adler reports on Republican and conservative politics and media for The Nation as a Contributing Writer.
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 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.
On climate change, Romney went from leading the charge to create a Northeastern Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) to being the region's only governor who wouldn't join the group. As Steve Kornacki reported in the New York Observer in 2006:
Take the case of Douglas Foy, a former president of the Conservation Law Foundation. Mr. Romney, upon winning the governorship in 2002, deputized Mr. Foy to develop an environmentally friendly "smart growth" blueprint for the commonwealth.
Mr. Foy didn't disappoint, promptly teaming with counterparts throughout the Northeast to create the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a miniature Kyoto Accord aimed at stemming carbon-dioxide emissions. Then Mr. Romney made up his mind to go national—and suddenly, Mr. Foy's work reeked of Al Gore–ism. So the governor, unlike his five fellow governors, refused to sign onto the agreement and pushed Mr. Foy out.
There is another possible explanation for Romney's reversal: according to Clyde Barrow, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, Romney pulled out of the RGGI under pressure from a self-interested business lobby. "When [Romney] was running for governor he was talking about renewable energy as a job creator. But then the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, which represents small manufacturing firms, lobbied him against it. He reversed right after meeting with them."
The RGGI would have included money for renewable energy investment. A February 2011 report shows participating states have received more than $900.5 million from auctioning permits. They are investing 80 percent of the proceeds in energy efficiency and renewable energy.
Romney might counter that protecting small manufacturers was important for the state's economy. But he didn't do a terribly good job of it. During Romney's tenure Massachusetts lost more than 48,000 manufacturing jobs.
In 2006, according to the Boston Globe, "the Romney administration inserted a restriction [into state rules] stating that embryos could not be produced with the sole intent of using the embryo for research.'" With schools like Harvard, MIT, Boston University and Tufts in Massachusetts, bio-medical research is an important part of the state's economy. "Bio-tech has actually been one of the stronger growth areas in Massachusetts," notes Barrow. Many schools publicly opposed Romney's decision and his successor, Deval Patrick, reversed it.
Meanwhile, Massachusetts' infrastructure accrued a $20 billion deficit of overdue maintenance by the end of Romney's term, according to the Massachusetts Taxpayer's Foundation. "When you're not fixing bridges, that's a sector not creating jobs," says Massachusetts Democratic Party chair John Walsh. "It's foolish because you're not creating savings, you're just deferring the spending until problems get worse and the cost gets higher."
So did Romney, who ran on a promise to improve job growth in Massachusetts, do anything good on that front? No, and he barely even tried. "During his time as governor he attempted only one statewide economic development initiative: to incentivize manufacturing companies with a rebate on state income tax," says Barrow. "It didn't work. I think he really just wasn't doing a lot."
The Romney campaign did not return a request for comment.