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Whether Mitt Romney or President Obama, the man who occupies the Oval Office next year will bring exactly four years of experience as a top political executive. Mr. Obama will have spent four years in the White House and, of course, Mr. Romney spent four years as governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007.
As part of our series called Parallel Lives, NPR's David Welna is going to tell us how both of these men have struggled to work with lawmakers. Today, we'll hear about Governor Romney.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: 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. Romney then gave up on party building. From now on, he told The Boston Globe, it's me, me, me.
Within weeks, Romney had unveiled a universal health insurance plan that would become his signature accomplishment as he launched a 2008 bid for the White House. Passing that bill meant working closely with Democrats. And at its ceremonial signing at Boston's Faneuil Hall, Romney spoke as a political uniter.
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WELNA: At Romney's side stood Edward Kennedy, Massachusetts's late Democratic senator. The two men had debated sharply on the same stage a dozen years earlier during Romney's unsuccessful bid to unseat Kennedy. But in 2006, Kennedy had only praise for Romney.
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WELNA: Boston University political historian Thomas Whalen says passing health care pushed Romney well outside his comfort zone.
THOMAS WHALEN: He was capable, you know, when he was willing to, to get down in the trenches, cut deals, pigeonhole legislators to get his reform health care package through. And he did with remarkable success.
WELNA: But 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...
WELNA: Romney issued some 800 vetoes, and the legislature overrode nearly all of them, sometimes unanimously. At a recent Obama rally on the steps of the Massachusetts State House, Democratic lawmaker Pat Haddad was heckled by Romney supporters as she issued this warning.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE PAT HADDAD: You're going to get the same guy who never wanted to engage the legislature.
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HADDAD: He never wanted to look for new jobs. He was always only looking for his next job.
WELNA: But Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams says that's just the kind of flack you get for having been a governor who shook up the status quo.
RYAN WILLIAMS: Obviously, when you do that and make the tough decisions, you're not going to make friends everywhere.
WELNA: Especially not in the state house, where Romney's office was just down the hall from the House chamber.
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WELNA: Standing outside that chamber, Democrat Ellen Story recalls a Governor Romney who had a policeman screen visitors and who did not allow lawmakers to use the bank of elevators just outside his office.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE ELLEN STORY: He was aloof. He was not approachable. He was very much an outsider the whole time he was here.
WELNA: And Story remembers something else about the former governor.
STORY: The Republican reps would grumble that he didn't even know their names.
WELNA: George Peterson was one of those Republicans. He does not take issue with his colleague's characterization of Romney.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE GEORGE PETERSON: It took him a little bit to get used to dealing with elected officials, let's put it that way.
WELNA: Romney, says Peterson, was not a natural at being governor.
PETERSON: The first year was, I'd say, a struggle. He was used to being a top executive, and this is where we're going, and this is how we're going to do it. And this animal doesn't work that way - not at all - especially when it's overwhelmingly ruled by one party.
WELNA: Still, former Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei says Romney proved his mettle tackling a $3 billion deficit.
STATE SENATOR RICHARD TISEI: He walked into a very difficult situation. And I think the fact that he was able to close the budget gap without increasing income or sales or any other broad-based tax, number one. And number two, he was able to control spending.
WELNA: At the time, Tisei says, people in Massachusetts really appreciated Romney's effort. Still, this week, the Obama campaign came out with a new ad that aims to turn Romney's time as governor against him.
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WELNA: But by the end of his term, Romney's approval rating in Massachusetts stood at 34 percent. In recent polls, that number has barely changed. For political historian Whalen, that's not surprising.
WHALEN: I think Romney's biggest problem here in Massachusetts is not that he necessarily did a disastrous job. He didn't. But he raised the expectation bar so high that, you know, he just didn't deliver.
WELNA: Which is the same critique often leveled against the president whom Romney seeks to unseat. David Welna, NPR News.
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