WASHINGTON -- If Mitt Romney seemed comfortable turning last week's kerfuffle over stay-at-home mothers into a "Christmas gift" that came early for his presidential campaign, it was for good reason. The former Massachusetts governor has been involved in the oft-dicey politics of motherhood since his first run for public office.
Oftentimes, he waded into the fray without exhibiting the same empathy for stay-at-home moms that he, his wife, and his campaign staff displayed when going after Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen -- a former Huffington Post editor at large -- for comments she made about Ann Romney. In June 1994, as a U.S. Senate candidate, Romney argued in a Boston Globe questionnaire that welfare recipients should go back to work in order to keep receiving benefits -- not because they needed to understand the upsides of employment, but because it would set a good example for their kids.
"Once there are no preschoolers at home, parents should work to receive welfare support," Romney wrote. "A child needs to see firsthand the dignity of work."
His opponent, Ted Kennedy, would respond by airing an ad that noted his involvement in passing a family and medical leave bill as well as his lifelong push for childcare for working mothers.
As governor, meanwhile, Romney dealt routinely with legislation that had ramifications on mothers, whether they were welfare recipients or not. His streak of fiscal discipline meant millions of dollars in cuts to education and women's health programs.
Oftentimes, however, the backlash came when policy changes were attached to additional spending. In January 2004, Romney was forced to scale back a proposal that would have required the parents of preschoolers in poorly performing schools to take publicly funded parenting classes. According to a Boston Herald article from that time, he agreed to limit the requirement to only those who received state-subsidized day care.
The most controversial legislation Romney supported as governor may have been his push to revamp welfare reform in the state. His bill required parents in households with children from one to five years of age to work at least 20 hours a week in exchange for benefits. To help with the burden, Massachusetts taxpayers would pay $18.3 million for state-funded day care and job training services. Democrats in the state called it insensitive. Romney, as recently as January 2012, said the move had the best interests of the parents at heart.
"Welfare without work erodes the spirit and the sense of self-worth of the recipient," he wrote in his book No Apology. "And it conditions the children of nonworking parents to an indolent and unproductive life."
That Romney was espousing the dignity of working mothers even while his own wife stayed at home was not, his campaign stressed, an act of hypocrisy. "Gov. Romney was talking about moving individuals from welfare to work," a Romney aide noted. "Moving welfare recipients into work was one of the basic principles of the bipartisan welfare reform legislation that President Clinton signed into law."
But even if the policy prescriptions were just about revamping welfare, it is worth noting the context in which they were produced. Romney entered the governor's office having replaced an individual who was, for a short period of time, the very emblem of women who balanced work and motherhood.
Jane Swift, a Republican who became acting governor of Massachusetts in 2001 and served until 2003, was the first sitting governor in U.S. history to give birth while in office. And even after delivering twins one month into her term, she barely took time off. Swift continued to be part of gubernatorial operations while on maternity leave and participated in teleconferences from her hospital bed.
"I think she represented the difficulties women have balancing home and professional life," recalled Jeffrey Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University. "She became a symbol of just how hard it is to be a good parent and be an effective office-holder. In her case the difficulties were compounded by the distance between her home and her office."
Indeed, some of the scandals that tripped Swift up while in office seemed to be caused by juggling her personal and professional duties. As lieutenant governor, she had staff members serve as unpaid babysitters for her infant daughter. Other aides were used to help her family move to another home, again without compensation. Most infamously, she used a state police helicopter to avoid Thanksgiving traffic and get home to her sick daughter.
But aides to the former governor insist that she was more than capable of being a mother and a governor at the same time.
"She didn't have any trouble making work or going to meetings, coming in and doing what needed to be done," recalled Michael Hannahan, a former Swift adviser and now the director of the University of Massachusetts Civic Initiative. "Jane was, in my mind, and I've been around, always the best prepared person in the meeting. But the image that was developed -- and maybe this was partially her staff's fault -- was of someone who wasn't there because of whatever reason."
"What she juggled was enormous," said Hannahan. "And forget the personal thing, her pregnancy, what she went through in her very short term was much more than Mitt Romney ever went through. And I like Mitt Romney. He is a good guy. She dealt with 9/11, we totally reformed Massport [Massachusetts Port Authority], the economy went in a total tank ... that is a lot in a couple months."
Romney had, at one point, promised not to challenge Swift for the Republican nomination, were she to run for a full term in 2002. But with Swift's popularity plummeting following a terrible economic downturn -- itself compounded by the 9/11 attacks -- state GOP officials began pushing for her exit. Romney was believed to have encouraged the pile-on. Swift was earning a reputation as someone in over her head. Romney, who had just turned around the Winter Olympics and had a 60-point advantage over Swift in the polls, was a fresh face and had an air of competency.
"Something has to give," Swift said, upon announcing her departure.
For Romney, there were no complicating side distractions. In 2007, his son Tagg would tell The New York Times that the main difficulty the family experienced with respect to motherhood was that "in a liberal, Northeast state, you feel almost embarrassed to say you're a stay-at-home-mom."