Mitt’s utterly empty Massachusetts boasts

His new ad is a textbook demonstration of how to make something out of nothing

Topics: Opening Shot,

Mitt’s utterly empty Massachusetts boasts

(updated)

The Obama campaign has been criticizing Mitt Romney’s record as Massachusetts governor, and the presumptive Republican nominee is now responding with an ad of his own. Romney certainly has a right (and, from a strategic standpoint, an obligation) to rebut his opponent’s attacks, but the defense he offers is a textbook demonstration of how to make something out of nothing.

The spot makes three specific boasts about Romney’s term as governor, which ran from 2003 to 2007. The first involves job creation:

“As Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney had the best jobs record in a decade.”

That sounds impressive, but look a little closer. In the decade before Romney’s tenure, Massachusetts had three other governors, all Republicans. One of them, Bill Weld, clearly had a better jobs record than him. When Weld came to office in January 1991, the state’s economy really was in a freefall. A major Boston-based bank, the Bank of New England, had just failed and the jobless rate was 7.4 percent and climbing fast. Within a few months it reached 9.7 percent, then began falling as the economy – in the state and nationally – revived. Weld left office at the end of July ’97 (to pursue an ill-fated bid to become ambassador to Mexico) with the jobless rate at just 4.1 percent.

His successor, Paul Cellucci, oversaw a further decline, with the rate plummeting to just above 2 percent in 2000. But the economy began sagging, and the number started to rise again. On April 10, 2001, he resigned to become George W. Bush’s ambassador to Canada. If you use the data from March ’01, Cellucci’s last full month on the job, he left the state with a jobless rate of 3.1 percent. If you use the April ’01 data, the figure was 3.3 percent. Either way, it’s comparable to the 0.9 percent drop that Romney presided over from ’03 to ’07.

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The only governor in the decade before Romney’s arrival with a clearly worse jobs record was his immediate successor, Jane Swift, who served as acting governor from April ’01 to January ’03. During that time, unemployment climbed to 5.6 percent, which is where it stood when Romney was sworn-in.

So what Romney’s “best governor in a decade” boast actually means is that he had a better jobs record than Cellucci and Swift. And the reality is that there wasn’t a dramatic difference between his jobs record and Cellucci’s. So really, Romney is just bragging that he was better than Swift, who served less than half a term.

Then there’s this:

“He balanced every budget without raising taxes.”

This is only true in a very literal sense. Romney didn’t raise the income or sales taxes, but his first budget did impose more than $500 million in new fees that directly hit middle class residents. At the time they were enacted, the National Conference of State Legislatures noted that no other state had relied so heavily on fees to balance its books. Not that this is news: Obama’s campaign has been playing up Romney’s fee spree, and his Republican opponents threw it in his face during both of his presidential runs.

The ad’s final claim is that Romney achieved balanced budgets “by bringing parties together to cut through gridlock.” Again, this means a lot less than it sounds like. A balanced budget is required in Massachusetts and the state’s legislature is overwhelmingly Democratic. The only way for Romney to meet his constitutional duties was to sign a balanced budget approved by Democrats.

What Romney is banking on, of course, is that swing voters aren’t aware of this context, or don’t care about it even if they are. His entire strategy depends on economic anxiety leading voters to look for reasons to throw out Obama and to give Romney the benefit of the doubt, even if those reasons aren’t logical. From that standpoint, this ad might work just fine.

Update: As I read it, the script of the ad seems to be saying that when he left office, Romney’s jobs record was the best in a decade, but an emailer notes that the Romney team might be using a different set of years — like 2002 to the present, for instance. If this is the case, then Romney would be comparing himself to Swift and current Governor Deval Patrick. Measuring his jobs record against Patrick’s is tricky. Patrick inherited a 4.7 percent unemployment rate from Romney and as of this April it sat at 6.7 percent. But, of course, Patrick came to office before the meltdown, after which his state’s jobless rate reached 8.7 percent. Since that early 2010 peak, it’s dropped two points.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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