HIS LIPS say maybe, and his eyes say yes. Mitt Romney has the fever: Potomac Fever.
The Massachusetts Republican governor conducted a round of pre-holiday interviews designed to quash local speculation about his political future outside the state. But Romney has that lean and hungry look. He says he is running for reelection in 2006. He looks as though he is also running for president in 2008.
The governor is already speaking in grandiose slogans that bridge to a national stage, with local facts and figures slipping from instant recall. Education, for example, is "the civil rights issue of the century," he said during his recent sit-down at the Globe. He noted that "as a nation," 53 percent of education spending is allocated to teaching costs. "I don't know the number in Massachusetts," said the governor. Asked a question about spending in the Boston schools, he replied, "I don't know the Boston district."
He is calling for expanded health insurance coverage. The call is big on headlines but short on details and commitment to hard work in the local political trenches. Like other governors before him, he is using the Republican Governor's Association as a forum to promote policies that garner national attention: Romney, who recently won election as vice chairman of the group, is speaking out against the Bush administration's efforts to eliminate a practice some states use to get more federal Medicaid money.
Romney is also beginning to cultivate the national media mentions that are key to gaining broad political credibility. Last month, conservative George F. Will devoted an entire column to Romney-for-president speculation. This month, blogger John Ellis, a first cousin of the president, gives Romney his "best governor" award, calling him "The GOP's best hope in 2008."
Romney's national ambition will be tested on several fronts. Can any politician, Democrat or Republican, make a serious run for national office from John Kerry's home state? Can a tentatively pro-choice, stridently anti-gay marriage Republican win first the GOP nomination and then enough blue and red states to win the presidency? How will Romney's Mormon religion play out on a national stage? In the end, Kerry's Catholicism hurt him -- with Catholics.
Those are questions for Romney. For Massachusetts citizens, the questions run more to how their governor's political ambition will affect Bay State policy and politics.
"From now on, it's me, me, me," said Romney. He was responding to a question about his commitment to a thankless task, trying to elect Republicans in Massachusetts. With Kerry topping the Bay State ticket, the GOP effort failed miserably in 2004. Romney now says: "I can't put as much effort in the next time. . . . Of course, I'll help the Republican Party, but I can't raise as much money. I can't focus on that."
The "me, me, me" attitude has broader implications. In the short-term, it seems Massachusetts will pay the price in continued gridlock. Romney has his ambition, legislators have their own, and it is difficult to see where they meet for the common good.
The Legislature, controlled by Democrats, won't help him make a case for national office. Besides, Romney doesn't speak their language and never will. His public sector responsibilities do not alter his private sector worldview. Just one hour of listening to him makes that very clear.
Told about a state college instructor who goes regularly to
Pressed on his rationale for rolling back the state income tax, Romney provided two reasons for his commitment: "The people voted for it, and it's still a democracy"; and "A tax is the price you charge your customers for living here." The second rationale also turns out to be a reference to Staples. Romney said he remembers asking what would happen if consumers did not flock to Staples when it first opened. The answer from one of the founders: "You lower the price and advertise more" -- a concept Romney says he applies to government, along with the axiom "Invest where there is the greatest return for our citizens."
He is not the first Massachusetts politician to seek a return for himself, too -- one he hopes will come from beyond Bay State boundaries. But it would be nice, for once, to have a governor who wants it to be about "us, us, us" before it is about "me, me, me."
Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is email@example.com.