John McCain's Veepstakes: Mitt Romney

(This is the thirteenth Veepstakes article. Already profiled have been Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Ohio Rep. Rob Portman, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint and South Dakota Sen. John Thune. )

When he launched his bid for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. (2002-06) Mitt Romney was viewed skeptically by many conservatives. The son of former Michigan Gov. (1962-69) George Romney, a hero to liberal GOPers in the 1960s and briefly a presidential candidate himself in 1968, Mitt Romney had taken decidedly non-conservative positions in his winning race for governor and as the Republican nominee against Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1994. He proclaimed himself “pro-choice,” favored civil unions for gay couples, and dismissed the “No New Taxes” pledge as a “gimmick,” refusing to sign it.

But in his stint as governor and then on the national campaign trail, the Harvard graduate (he holds law and MBA degrees), successful venture capitalist, and overseer of the 2002 Winter Olympics demonstrated that he was much better than what skeptics on the right had thought. Facing a legislature that was two-thirds Democratic, the GOP governor erased a major budget deficit through spending cuts and increasing certain fees (but without any tax increase). Romney was also in the national media spotlight in ’03 and ’04 for his opposition to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling mandating same-sex marriage. Although he still favored civil unions, Romney also became a spirited supporter of a constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union between a man and a woman. And he became the architect of a health care plan to deal with the Bay State’s estimated 9% uninsured citizens.

As a candidate for President, Romney carefully explained that his position on abortion had evolved through discourse and scientific study. Noting that Ronald Reagan and other Republican leaders had changed their views on abortion, the Massachusetts man also took conservative stands on energy development, a “security first” immigration agenda, and repeal of McCain-Feingold and other campaign finance regulations. He also vowed to cut government spending drastically, declaring, “I can’t wait to get my hands on a veto pen.”
Although some on the right remained skeptical, many conservatives accepted Romney as the “real deal.” Among those who rallied to him were such solid conservatives in Congress as Rep. Tom Feeney (R.-Fla.) and Sen. Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.), and cultural conservative leaders including the Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, who made it clear he had no problem with the candidate’s Mormon faith.

Romney won primaries in Michigan, Massachusetts, and Utah, as well as several convention and caucus states. He finally bowed out in February at the Conservative Political Action Conference and gave a ringing endorsement to John McCain.

Although he doesn’t discuss it that much, Romney has responded to talk of him as McCain’s running mate by saying, yes, he would accept if the presumed nominee asks him.

A Reborn McCainiac

These days, the 61-year-old Romney is a dedicated surrogate for erstwhile rival McCain. As he told me recently, “What I do with regard to the McCain campaign is precisely what they ask me to do. They’ve asked me to speak at the Republican conventions in Maine, Nevada, Utah, Texas and several other states. They sent me to Pennsylvania, Florida, and to Michigan, so I’ve been making rounds as the McCain campaign thinks I might be most helpful. I also, of course, have asked my fundraising organization to go into full gear to raise money for Sen. McCain’s effort, and I’m pretty pleased that we’ve been able to do that.” Additionally, Romney has formed the Free And Strong America Political Action Committee to support Senate and House candidates, Florida Representatives Feeney and Connie Mack among them, and has helped several candidates for other offices:, including Washington State GOP gubernatorial nominee Dino Rossi.

But Romney made it clear to me that his top priority is electing John McCain President.
“The stark contrast between Barack Obama and John McCain on national security and on the economy, those differences, that gap between those two men is so large that crowds are responding very, very favorably to supporting Sen. McCain.,” said Romney.

“These are conservative crowds that I speak to, Republican activists by and large. I’ll talk about the economy, and I’ll say let’s listen to what Barack Obama has to say about the economy. One, he wants to raise individual income taxes, the capital gains tax, he wants to keep the death tax, he wants to raise Social Security taxes. John McCain feels just the opposite. He wants to lower taxes. On energy, Barack Obama is opposed to nuclear energy and he wants to tax natural gas and coal, our major domestic energy sources. John McCain instead wants to open additional drilling offshore and become energy independent and Senator McCain wants to see nuclear power expand in our country. In regard to freedom in the workplace, Barack Obama wants to remove the right of workers to have a secret ballot in elections, and John McCain wants to protect the secret ballot for American workers. These differences get people pretty animated, and I think they’re garnering the kind of support among Republican activists that we need.”

McCain, however, has not endorsed repeal of the death tax and, while changing his view to support offshore drilling, remains adamantly opposed to exploration in the more-promising Arctic Natural Wildlife Reserve (ANWR). Although Romney differs with him on both issues, he also believes “it’s not the role of a surrogate and supporter of Sen. McCain to engage and try to get him to change positions during the campaign. He’s laid out his views. I’ll let him evaluate the issues as they come along. Surely, the advent of $4 gasoline, moving towards $5, means that you have to re-evaluate the views that have been taken in the past. I know that Sen. McCain recently said that he thinks we should lift the federal ban on off-shore drilling and allow drilling if states agree. Well, we all know that Alaskans are enthusiastically supportive of drilling in ANWR, it’s something that I think makes sense, but I’m not going to try to counsel John McCain on things he’s taken positions on.”
Of his health care plan in Massachusetts, the former governor notes that, since he signed it into law, the percentage of uninsured citizens has dropped to 5% and a recent poll showed that 71% of Bay State voters support the plan.

“I did not propose that the Massachusetts plan be imposed on every state in America,” he told me. “Instead, I said, it’s a good model for people to look at. Copy the good and throw out the bad. But there’s some pretty impressive statistics that I think balance the view of the Wall Street Journal.” [which recently was editorially critical of the plan].

“One is, they point out the expense of the plan, but they don’t point out the savings, because our plan replaces over time our uncompensated care pool or the provision of free care by hospitals which is paid for by taxpayers and ratepayers. The reduction in the one is something they failed to acknowledge, so the net cost is a far more appropriate figure.
Number two, it is exceeding the budget amount which was prepared by the leadership of the authority that oversees the health care plan, but it does so because more people have enrolled than they expected, and that’s good news, not bad news. As a matter of fact, the cost per person is less than they anticipated. So, they’re pleased with the success that they’re seeing. Third, this is awfully important, the number of insured has been cut in half, and this information comes from the income tax filings, there are approximately 5% uninsured in the state today. Of them, 3 percentage points are individuals who penalize themselves on their tax form by virtue of not having insurance yet, but the other 2 percentage points were excused because of religious objections or because of inability to pay. So you really dramatically reduce the uninsured in the state, and it has not required an increase in income taxes in Massachusetts or other tax revenues to compensate for the plan. So it’s working.”

Mitt Romney didn’t get to be the Republican nominee for President this year. But whatever the future brings, it is clear he is someone who will be a player in national politics for some time.