By Robert L. Turner
Numbers are important in evaluating Mitt Romney, but the focus should not be on the $250 million estimated fortune he amassed at Bain Capital, or the $374,00 in speaking fees he took in last year, or even on the roughly 15 federal percent tax rate he paid.
The most important number is 47 — Massachusetts’s rank in job creation when he was governor. This is the number that most calls into question Romney’s own current job application.
No job is comparable to the presidency, but the closest thing to it is governor of a large state — an executive position in public office, where the welfare of millions of people is the charge. Unlike a corporate executive, whose overriding goal is to make profits for investors, the president and governors have the same central goal — improving the well-being of the entire population. The first priority, usually, is the overall economy.
Indeed, Romney won office in 2002, after shouldering aside Acting Governor Jane Swift, with a pledge to use his business experience and connections to bring jobs to Massachusetts. He failed, dreadfully.
The 47 figure is one Romney cannot escape. During his four years in office, Massachusetts ranked 47th in overall job growth — only 0.9 percent compared with 5.3 percent nationally. Romney has countered that the unemployment went down appreciably — from 5.6 percent to 4.7 percent during his term.
How could so few new jobs translate into a healthy-looking decline in unemployment? The answer is simple — and not so healthy: Working-age adults were packing up and moving out. Many were replaced, fortunately, by immigrants. But overall, Massachusetts was one of only two states to have no growth in its resident labor force during Romney’s term.
Another part of that answer is that the national economy was doing well; Romney left office after one term in January, 2007, before the nation and its leaders were tested by the Great Recession.
Now, Romney emphasizes his success making profits in the private sector as his primary credential for the presidency, largely ignoring his record as governor except when, under pressure, he washes his hands of the health care bill that was his singular accomplishment in Boston.
Too many have bit. America has always been fascinated by wealth. And aspects of Romney’s success story are undeniably interesting But the question of whether his work at Bain Capital led to the creation or loss of jobs is an exercise in arithmetic that is not nearly as relevant as his performance as governor.
Romney has attempted to add political capital from his Bain Capital career by suggesting that his record of making enormous profits for himself and some investors means that President Obama is opposed to profit. (Obama might do well to parrot Bill Clinton’s remark that he hoped America would create a record number of new millionaires in his term, which turned out to be the case. And Obama has some ammunition — the number of new millionaires jumped by 8 percent in 2010.) More to the point, Romney’s Republican opponents, and much of the press, are allowing Bain to be a huge distraction.
The single most telling frame through which to view Romney as a potential president, by far, is his performance for four years as governor of Massachusetts. When he was head of Bain, money was flowing in. When he was governor of Massachusetts, people were filing out.
Robert L. Turner, a former Globe columnist, is a senior fellow at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at UMass Boston.