IT'S THE DEEP, dark secret of the Mitt Romney campaign, the one he and his handlers are desperately hoping no one will find out.
He's a Republican.
Shh -- keep it to yourself. Nobody's supposed to know. That's why on the campaign trail, Romney never mentions his party affiliation. That's why the word "Republican" can barely be found on his lavish web site, romney2002.com. That's why it doesn't cross his lips during debates, and why his press releases routinely avoid it. (They identify him not as the GOP gubernatorial nominee but as "Former Winter Olympic Chief Mitt Romney.")
Apparently Romney has bought into the received wisdom that the only way a Republican can get elected in Massachusetts is to campaign as a near-Democrat. Thus the heart of his policy on jobs-creation is an annual increase in the minimum wage, a hoary Democratic nostrum if there ever was one. Thus when asked how he would cut a billion dollars from the state budget, he doesn't mention a single program, entitlement, subsidy, or benefit he would end or reduce. He offers instead the oldest bromide in American politics: He'll do it by "cutting waste, inefficiency, duplication, and patronage." Now there's a rallying cry to fire the blood.
Romney on housing? Point 1 of his 8-point plan is to impose a new "green space" fee on builders. Romney on gay rights? He wants more legal protection for same-sex couples. Romney on abortion? His position is virtually the same as Shannon O'Brien's. Romney on gun ownership? The answer he gave during the Springfield debate could have been scripted by the Democratic State Committee:
"We do have tough gun laws in Massachusetts; I support them; I won't chip away at them; I believe they protect us and provide for our safety."
It's one of the oldest fallacies in Massachusetts politics, this notion that a Republican must walk, talk, and quack like a liberal in order to win elections. Romney swallowed it in 1994, when he challenged Ted Kennedy for the US Senate. That was the campaign in which he talked about breaking glass ceilings and opening the Boy Scouts to homosexuals; in one of his debates with Kennedy, he even made a point of dissociating himself from Ronald Reagan.
It was a losing strategy then, it's a losing strategy now. Romney is not going to get to the Corner Office by releasing his inner Democrat. If he spends the rest of this campaign trying to be Shannon O'Brien Lite, the real Shannon O'Brien is going to be the next governor of Massachusetts.
When former Governor Bill Weld came to town to campaign for GOP ticket recently, Romney took pains not to be seen together with him. Too bad. In 1994 Weld was re-elected governor in a historic landslide; he could teach Romney a thing or two about how Republicans can win in Massachusetts. As a supporter of gun control, gay rights, easy abortion, and strict environmental control, Weld was hardly a conservative. But those weren't the issues he stressed in his campaigns. Instead he ran well to the right, never straying from conservative themes -- cutting taxes, reforming welfare, controlling crime, and executing killers.
Romney shouldn't pretend to be something he's not. But to have any chance of winning this election, he has to focus attention on issues that create a contrast with O'Brien, not on those that portray him as merely a paler shade of Democrat.
Far from hiding his Republican identity, he should be seizing every opportunity to remind voters that keeping the governor's office in GOP hands is all that stands between them and a return to one-party government. He should be reviving memories of what happened the last time Massachusetts was a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party. He should be telling and retelling the story of the Dukakis meltdown -- the tide of red ink that drenched Beacon Hill, the state bond rating that dropped like a stone, the three years in a row of jolting tax and fee hikes.
When Democrats last controlled the House, the Senate, and the governor's office, Romney should be saying, the Massachusetts economy paid the price. Unemployment raced ahead of the national rate. Housing prices tanked. Revenues plummeted. With no check or balance on Democratic power, scandals proliferated -- from weekend furloughs for first-degree killers to embezzlement and sex crimes involving state-college presidents to Dukakis-appointed police chiefs sent to prison for perjury. Those were the days when citizens calling for reform were mocked by the governor as "gutless wonders." As someone once said, the fish rots from the head first.
Romney needs to spend more time trumpeting the issues on which he differs from O'Brien: He is for the death penalty; she is against it. He is for English immersion; she is for bilingual education. He is for lower taxes; she repeatedly voted to raise them. Each of those contrasts works to his advantage.
But the biggest contrast of all is the one Romney never mentions: He is a Republican, she is a Democrat. That R after his name has the power to attract an awful lot of votes. He really should stop keeping it secret.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)
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