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The Strained Attack On Mitt’s Mass. Record

It was overshadowed by the return of the jury in the John Edwards case, but the Obama campaign opened a whole new front of attack against Mitt Romney on Thursday: going after his record as governor of Massachusetts. Romney has of late been starting to invoke his gubernatorial record, after running mainly on his years in business during the Republican primaries, so it makes sense for Team Obama to try to undermine his claims of success on Beacon Hill as it is trying to undermine his record at Bain Capital. That said, I’m not sure they’ve really hit on the right approach in this case.

This four-minute Web video encapsulates the new attack, which was followed up by a heckler-plagued event that David Axelrod held Thursday in Boston. Not sure about you, but I find it a bit…strained.

The premise is clear—Mitt Romney promised the same sort of economic wonderland to the people of Massachusetts in 2002 as he is promising to the whole country now, but those promises fell far short in the Bay State. As the mayor of North Adams (just up the road from my hometown of Pittsfield!) intones in the video: “Romney economics doesn’t work. It didn’t work in Massachusetts and it’s not going to work in Washington.” The bedrock of this claim, of course, is the oft-cited stat that Massachusetts was 47th in job creation during Romney’s four years as governor. But I’ve winced every time I’ve heard that figure used, both in the primaries and now. Do we really think that one-term governors have a significant role in job creation? If job tallies are the metric of gubernatorial greatness, then we really should be electing Rick Perry president, but we’re not, because we also know that job creation in Texas is driven by population growth and immigration and low wages and lax regulation, etc. Of course, the Obama’s campaign’s use of the 47th ranking is to puncture Romney’s highly dubious, and very central, argument that his prowess as a businessman makes him uniquely to create jobs as a government executive. But still, invoking that stat so heavily means effectively accepting the premise that a government executive’s performance can rated by job creation—a notion that I’m not so sure the Obama campaign wants to be validating right now.

The video also hits Romney for increasing a wide range of state fees and loading the state up with a fair amount of debt—both of which are true. But overall, the attack casts Romney’s governorship in a way that strains credulity—much more so than the campaign’s focused attacks on some of Bain Capital’s more outrageous deals. It makes the state under Romney’s rule to some kind of reeling dystopia, which it just wasn’t. Yes, the state has gone through some dips in the past couple decades, one of which occurred during Romney’s reign, and there are parts of it (including my hometown of Pittsfield) that are still struggling with your usual post-industrial challenges. But the state remains one of the wealthiest in the country, with a vibrant tech-driven economy and a school system that rivals that of Finland and South Korea.

Here’s the reality of Romney’s governorship, as described well in Michael Kranish and Scott Helman’s biography and countless other accounts:  he ran as a moderate—in fact, a "progressive"—and once elected, he did a whole bunch of things that would make today’s Republicans pale, including pushing for anti-car, anti-sprawl smart-growth policies. He was a capable enough administrator, if a bit too aloof from others in his executive cocoon. But by early in the second half of his term, he started thinking seriously about running for president and shifted to the right so suddenly that one could have seen the move all the way from the White Mountains. Not only that, he started spending much less time actually governing the state as he focused instead on laying the groundwork for his run for president.

Which is to say that there is a strong critique to be made of Romney’s time running Massachusetts: that it revealed conclusively for the first time just how opportunistic and lacking in an inner compass Mitt Romney is. It’s a bit puzzling to me why the Obama campaign is not framing its attack more along those lines, since that would fit very neatly with what it’s been saying since last fall—that Romney "has no core," and that "he’s never been in it for you," the new tagline that John Heilemann reports the campaign is considering using. Such a framing would also have the benefit of being more grounded in reality than this vision of Massachusetts as a forlorn wasteland.

Oh, and there’s one other thing that’s left out of this attack on Romney’s Massachusetts record: a little thing called Romneycare, the universal health care law that Romney, somewhat inexplicably, decided to push forward even as he was making his rightward lurch. It’s no mystery why it’s been left out of this attack: it doesn’t fit with the portrait of Governor Romney as a failed governor inattentive to the people’s needs. It certainly will be mentioned by the Obama campaign in the months ahead, in another context—as the golden response to Romney’s attacks on Obamacare, which is modeled on Romneycare. But its utter absence from this new line of attack makes this portrait seem all the more strained.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis