The first presidential debate has come and gone. Pundits on the right and left are in violent agreement. Mitt Romney handily won the debate while President Obama slept walked his way through a tangle of stats and professorial vagaries. But now that Mitt Romney has done his Etch-A-Sketch shake off, disown his tea party rhetoric and disowned his 47 percent diatribe, let’s examine his bipartisan accomplishments as the moderate governor of Massachusetts:
He came into office with a mandate to shake things up, an agenda laden with civics-book reforms and a raging fiscal crisis that threatened to torpedo both. He sparred with a hostile legislature and suffered a humiliating setback in the midterm elections. As four years drew to a close, his legacy was blotted by anemic job growth, sagging political popularity and — except for a landmark health care overhaul bill — a record of accomplishment that disappointed many.health care overhaul bill — a record of accomplishment that disappointed many.
That could be the Barack Obama that Mitt Romney depicted in Wednesday’s presidential debate as an ineffective and overly partisan leader. But it could also be Mitt Romney, who boasted of a stellar record as Massachusetts governor, running a state dominated by the political opposition.
Mr. Romney did score some successes beyond his health care legislation, notably joining a Democratic legislature to cut a deficit-ridden budget by $1.6 billion and revamping a troubled school building fund. Some outside experts and former aides say his administration excelled at the sorts of nuts-and-bolts efficiencies that make bureaucracies run better, like streamlining permit approvals and modernizing jobs programs.
As a Republican governor whose legislature was 87 percent Democratic, Mr. Romney said in Wednesday’s debate, “I figured out from Day 1 I had to get along, and I had to work across the aisle to get anything done.” The result, he said, was that “we drove our schools to be No. 1 in the nation. We cut taxes 19 times.”
But on closer examination, the record as governor he alluded to looks considerably less burnished than Mr. Romney suggested. Bipartisanship was in short supply; Statehouse Democrats complained he variously ignored, insulted or opposed them, with intermittent charm offensives. He vetoed scores of legislative initiatives and excised budget line items a remarkable 844 times, according to the nonpartisan research group Factcheck.org. Lawmakers reciprocated by quickly overriding the vast bulk of them.
The big-ticket items that Mr. Romney proposed when he entered office in January 2003 went largely unrealized, and some that were achieved turned out to have a comparatively minor impact. A wholesale restructuring of state government was dead on arrival in the legislature; an ambitious overhaul of the state university system was stillborn; a consolidation of transportation fiefs never took place.
Mr. Romney lobbied successfully to block changes in the state’s much-admired charter school program, but his own education reforms went mostly unrealized. His promise to lure new business and create jobs in a state that had been staggered by the collapse of the 2000 dot-com boom never quite bore fruit; unemployment dropped less than a percentage point during his four years, but for most of that time, much of the decline was attributed to the fact that any new jobs were being absorbed by a shrinking work force.
Mr. Romney won lawmakers’ consent to streamline a tangled health and human services bureaucracy, but the savings amounted to but $7 million a year. He entered office considering an eight-state compact to battle climate change, but left office outside the consortium, saying it cost too much.