WASHINGTON -- Unaware that reporters were listening, Mitt Romney offered a private gathering of fundraisers on Sunday night more details than normal as to which government agencies he'd axe as president.
But even in what Romney believed to be an off-the-record setting, the former Massachusetts governor was fairly guarded. He didn't say he would eliminate the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He said it "might not be around later." As for the Department of Education, Romney talked about consolidating it "with another agency, or perhaps [making] it a heck of a lot smaller." But he stopped short of saying he would "get rid of it entirely," arguing that it could serve an important role in going after teachers' unions.
The caution could be owed to the fact that Romney simply favors massive reductions over outright elimination. But the more popular theory is that it's political. Romney has candidly admitted that he's keeping his plans for eliminating government agencies secret so that they don't come back to haunt him in the general election. As he told the fundraising crowd on Sunday, he's still smarting from the ad Ted Kennedy ran against him in the 1994 Senate race, which homed in on Romney's call to eliminate the Department of Education.
The Huffington Post obtained that ad, which seems almost tame by today's attack-ad standards.
That this spot would stick with Romney 18 years later -- even in, what are supposed to be, private moments -- underscores how greatly the Massachusetts Republican has been shaped by his previous political experiences. But if Romney was hoping to buffer himself from attacks by stopping short of calling for the Department of Education's elimination, he underestimated the reaction to his position.
"If all he wants to do is use the Department of Education to go after unions -- then he’s clearly not interested in using it to help kids," Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers said in a statement. "How does it help kids when Romney wants to use the federal government to undermine teachers and their unions? Romney is out of touch. He doesn't get it."