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'My Views Are Progressive'

Like Ezra Klein, I find somewhat amusing the excitement over the newly discovered video clip of Mitt Romney proudly declaring in 2002 "My views are progressive." As Ezra notes, "After all, from 2003 to 2007 Romney was governor of Massachusetts. His record as governor is public. That record is either progressive or not, depending on your definition of the term. Romney’s comments don’t add any new information into the mix." Ezra goes on to explain why clips like these do, nonetheless, give Republican voters justifiable pause. It's worth reading his post in full.

But I wanted to add something about that record from 2003 to 2007, an overlooked point of evidence of just how much Romney strove to live up to that "progressive" claim on the campaign trail in 2002: his embrace of an anti-sprawl, anti-car smart-growth agenda. This issue was not something that was forced on him by virtue of governing a left-leaning state -- it was a social problem that he identified and set out to do something about, in the true tradition of the progressive reformer. From my magazine piece on this subject from last month:

Romney’s liberal heresies on health care, gay rights, and abortion are well established. Less well known is that, as governor of Massachusetts, he was a smart-growth acolyte. He hinted at this predilection during the campaign in 2002. “Smart growth, or purposeful planning, is a concept that will be in the governor’s office if I’m elected,” he said. After winning, he created a new “Office for Commonwealth Development” to oversee the transportation, environment, and housing departments—and named as its chief Douglas Foy. It was a brash decision for a business-oriented politician: Foy was the head of the state’s Conservation Law Foundation and an ardent environmentalist who often commuted 20 miles by bike. “He was the bane of the business and development community,” Benjamin Fierro, the lobbyist for the state homebuilders’ association, told me. “My clients were very concerned about that.”
Romney and Foy wasted little time in putting smart-growth policies to work. The state, they declared, would take a “fix-it-first” approach to highway spending—repairing existing roads instead of building new ones. They also pledged to cut the number of SUVs in the state fleet. In addition, the state put out a new highway-design manual intended to make towns more pedestrian-friendly, with narrower streets designed for slower driving speeds. “It was all really woolly, totally green, new-urbanist stuff—and it was state policy,” says Anthony Flint, who covered land-use issues for The Boston Globe and went on to join Foy’s office in 2005. The biggest move came in 2004, when Romney signed legislation, dubbed Chapter 40R, providing funds to towns and cities that agreed to allow more high-density, multi-family housing. “It was fundamentally anti-sprawl. It was saying that the days of having a developer buy a Christmas tree farm and throw up a bunch of single-family homes on half-acre lots were over,” Flint recalls. “It was a real awakening.”

Of course, as the piece goes on to note, Romney's enthusiasm for the subject waned later in his term, as his presidential aspirations grew. But it is episodes like this that help explain why many conservatives are so wary of him. Not so long ago, he wasn't just calling himself a progressive, he was truly behaving like one, even on fronts where he wasn't necessarily going to score a lot of points with the audience of the moment.