In January 2002, Acting Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift, who inherited the job from Paul Cellucci, announced that she would run for a full term. Unfortunately for Swift, Republicans in Massachusetts were convinced that she could not win, and began looking for suitable alternatives.
By March, efforts were underway to get Swift to bow out of the contest in favor of former US Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who had earned praise for his effective management of the Winter Olympics. After the Boston Herald published a poll showing that Romney, who failed in his 1994 bid to unseat Senator Edward Kennedy, was the favorite of 75 percent of GOP voters in Massachusetts, the acting governor withdrew from the race.
I had no grievance with Romney, but I wasn't thrilled to learn that his wife, son and daughter-in-law had signed a petition supporting a proposed amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. While I preferred civil unions as a means of securing legal protections for gay and lesbian couples, I felt the proposed constitutional amendment went way too far and would be unnecessarily divisive. Why would the Romney family be associated with such a petition? Did their views reflect the real views of the candidate? I was a little wary of Romney as a result.
The controversy over same-sex marriage -- sparked by an April 2001 lawsuit by seven gay couples who contended that it was illegal under the equal-protection requirements of the Massachusetts Constitution to deny them marriage licenses -- seemed to dominate the spring and early-summer. An outfit known as "Mass. Citizens for Marriage" bought up airtime on Boston talk radio, filling the airwaves with loathsome ads urging the legislature to greenlight a ballot initiative that would have banned same-sex marriage; the ads all but suggested that homosexuals were plotting to do to the "traditional family" what Osama bin Laden had done to the towers. While I was not a fan of the liberal Senate President Thomas Birmingham, I was quite happy to see him pull the plug on this effort in mid-July. Finally, those horrible ads were off the airwaves!
While Romney was not a gay-marriage supporter, I gradually came to the view that he was not necessarily in league with the "Mass. Citizens for Marriage" crowd, despite the petition controversy. Romney seemed a bit more conservative than Cellucci, and I wasn't entirely comfortable with that. Cellucci seemed to have the perfect balance of conservative and moderate views; while Romney professed to be pro-choice on the campaign trail, I wasn't entirely convinced that he was as centrist as Cellucci.
State Treasurer Shannon O'Brien won a contentious Democratic gubernatorial primary in September. I didn't dislike O'Brien; she seemed reasonably competent and didn't come across as a Democratic hack. A part of me wanted to vote for O'Brien because it required too much effort for me to fully trust Romney.
However, O'Brien didn't run the greatest campaign in the world: she never delivered a knockout performance in any of her debates with Romney, and she completely self-destructed during the final debate. On November 5, Romney beat O'Brien by five points. I was glad I ultimately went with the winner.
One year later, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled 4-3 that it was a violation of the equal-protection and due-process clauses of the Massachusetts Constitution to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. I didn't have a problem with the spirit of the ruling; I had supported the December 1999 Vermont Supreme Court ruling establishing civil unions in that state, and also supported the US Supreme Court's ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, which dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia warned would open the door for same-sex marriage. However, I still felt civil unions would be a less divisive way to establish legal protection for same-sex couples.
I was concerned that conservatives would overreact, which they certainly did: the denunciations of the ruling on Boston talk radio became so overheated (with callers implying that legalized bestiality was next, etc.) that I temporarily gave up listening. Governor Romney -- whose biggest accomplishment to date was forcing former Senate President William Bulger from his job as head of the University of Massachusetts -- vowed to support an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution effectively nullifying the ruling, something I couldn't envision previous Republican governors William Weld, Cellucci or Swift ever doing. Romney continued to denounce the SJC ruling and later proclaimed his support for an amendment to the US Constitution banning same-sex marriage; for a time, it seemed as though that was the only thing he was interested in doing.
Romney spent most of the second half of his term running around the country making jokes about Massachusetts and preparing a 2008 presidential bid. His decision not to run for a second term pretty much gave away his diminished interest in the affairs of the Commonwealth. Yes, he did sign health care reform into law in April 2006, but I was skeptical about whether it would be all that effective; wasn't this just another political stunt to make him look good in the nation's eyes?
On November 7, 2006, former Clinton Administration official Deval Patrick defeated Romney's lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, by 21 points to become the state's first African-American governor. I went to bed right after Healey delivered her concession speech, feeling that Healey had been defeated not only by Patrick but also by Romney, who had destroyed the state Republican Party's forward-thinking image by spending the previous three years demonizing the same-sex marriage ruling and deriding Massachusetts' reputation for social tolerance in speeches to out-of-state conservatives.
By this time, I had become a huge fan of Hugh Hewitt, a charismatic California conservative whose nationally syndicated radio show provided the sort of intellectual stimulation I hadn't had since Boston radio star David Brudnoy passed away. Hewitt aggressively promoted Romney's nascent presidential campaign, even writing a book entitled A Mormon in the White House? 10 Things Every American Should Know about Mitt Romney.
Despite my issues with Romney, I couldn't deny that Hewitt's argument about the former governor being the most qualified Republican in the presidential race was compelling. I was also horrified by the nasty attacks on Romney from a handful of ultra-conservative activists in Massachusetts who were angry that Romney had refused to issue a statement declaring the gay-marriage ruling void and unenforceable. (One activist even received a nearly 1,500-word profile in the Boston Globe.) I was afraid that this collection of right-wing flywheels would cause Romney to lose the 2008 general election, so I tore into them.
Won over by Hewitt's arguments, and contemptuous of his far-right attackers, I supported Romney's candidacy that spring and summer. However, I switched my allegiance from Romney to Fred Thompson in the fall. I became convinced that the GOP base would never support a Mormon from Massachusetts; in addition, I was attracted to Thompson's federalist views on social issues.
I wasn't the only one who had fallen out of love with Romney. Boston talk radio host Gregg Jackson had become radically anti-Romney, eventually aligning himself with the cranks who were livid that Romney had refused to declare the same-sex marriage ruling unenforceable.
On December 21, Jackson called in to his WRKO-AM colleague Howie Carr's show and confronted Romney, who calmly and coolly dissected Jackson's odd claims. Once the segment ended, I couldn't help thinking that Jackson had just made a colossal fool of himself.
After Thompson dropped out of the presidential race, I resumed my support for Romney. However, two days after Super Tuesday, Romney horrified conservative supporters when he announced that he was suspending his campaign at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. As soon as the news broke, I called a friend to express my concern that Romney's departure had effectively ended any chance of the GOP holding on to the White House, since John McCain was unelectable.
I've never wavered from my belief that Romney would have soundly defeated Barack Obama had he secured the GOP nomination instead of McCain. I still say that once the financial crisis hit in the fall of 2008, voters would have trusted Romney to steer America through the mess. He had the skills, the intelligence, and the charisma to turn back the Obama tide.
When Romney announced that he would once again run for the presidency, I was convinced that he would secure the White House win he should have secured four years ago. It seemed as though he would guarantee an Obama loss this year.
Yet it's no longer clear that he can, or even should, do that. It now seems as though Romney isn't really running for president, that he has no actual focus, that he lacks the discipline he demonstrated in his last presidential campaign.
The Romney of 2007-08 seemed to stand for something. What does the Romney of 2011-12 stand for? What, exactly, is he trying to accomplish?
Say what you will about Ronald Reagan, but when he challenged President Carter in 1980, he had a clear vision of where he wanted to take the country. In this race, Romney doesn't seem to have the right stuff: the intensity, the sharpness, the grit of the 2007-08 Romney has long since disappeared.
I would not have hesitated to vote for the Romney who had a clear idea of what he wanted to do in the White House. I would not have hesitated to vote for the Romney who seemed to understand that pandering is a poor substitute for policy. I would not have hesitated to vote for the Romney who was willing to challenge his own political base.
Where is that Mitt Romney? All I see now is another Mitt Romney... one I can no longer relate to.