Ask Kris Mineau about his work as a social conservative in liberal Massachusetts, and the director of the Massachusetts Family Institute quips: "We're fighting back the Huns at the gate."
Ask Mineau about working with Mitt Romney during the Republican's tenure as Massachusetts' governor, and Mineau offers an unflinching assessment of the now-presidential-candidate: "He was a startling breath of fresh air."
If that's a surprising assessment to some social conservatives skeptical of Romney's standing on issues like abortion, the positive sentiment also flows from some notable fiscal conservatives in Massachusetts.
In the tourist haven of Cape Cod, Republican state congressman Randy Hunt works as a certified public accountant at his four-man firm in Sandwich, Mass. The accountant's clients include small business owners grappling with the effects of another part of Romney's legacy: healthcare legislation that requires Massachusetts citizens to purchase insurance or pay fines. With insurance premiums rising in the state, Hunt says the law's effects hit hard for small business owners looking for reasonable rates: "We're basically out to lunch on this."
But Hunt also says he's endorsing Romney for the GOP nomination. Despite healthcare woes, Hunt liked Romney's fiscal policy and his dealings with small businesses in Massachusetts: He sees Romney as "the adult in the room."
With at least six other candidates vying to be the adult in the room when voters choose the GOP presidential nominee, Romney's hurdles are formidable. Despite a strong showing in initial polls, the candidate faces some of the same questions he battled during his 2008 bid for the nomination: Is he really a social conservative? Will voters-particularly evangelicals-vote for a Mormon? Does the multimillionaire relate well to average voters in a struggling economy?
And Romney faces a new foe this cycle: his own healthcare legislation. The Massachusetts plan that drew relatively limited attention during the last cycle is now a battleground for many conservatives worried about President Barack Obama's healthcare law and how it compares to Romney's policy. Some voters wonder: Does the candidate touting fiscal conservatism have a troublesome big-government streak?
Voters looking for sound-byte answers may be disappointed: Significant support from notable Massachusetts conservatives who worked with Romney while he was governor undercuts the notion that Romney is merely a fair weather conservative. Mineau-a conservative evangelical-says Romney was a consistent ally: "We sorely miss him."
Meanwhile, the often-overlooked support of some national conservatives for Romney's healthcare legislation during its passage undercuts the notion that the idea was a blatantly liberal scheme. Three months before Romney signed the bill, Edmund Haislmaier of the conservative Heritage Foundation called the governor's plan "one of the most promising strategies out there."
But Romney's critics have legitimate concerns, and the candidate faces a steep challenge to explain how what he calls conservative intentions sometimes in his career have gone significantly awry. For the candidate with sweeping ideas and big-business expertise, it was the details that sometimes undermined the outcome. Another challenge: convincing some Republicans that his intentions are as conservative as he promises.
Romney's stint as Massachusetts governor began with a blunt plea from a local conservative. Barbara Anderson of the Massachusetts-based Citizens for Limited Taxation told The Boston Globe she remembers leaving a phone message for Romney when he was trying to salvage the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics from financial ruin: "I know you're really busy now with the Olympics, but when you're finished, please come back and save Massachusetts."
By most accounts, Romney did help save the 2002 Olympics, using the same brand of corporate savvy that made him a multimillionaire while leading Bain Capital in Massachusetts. Could he apply that savvy in a state suffering fresh economic losses from the bursting of the dot-com bubble and a budget deficit projected to approach $3 billion?
Four years after Romney's single term in office ended, fiscal conservatives in Massachusetts don't say that Romney saved the state, but many do admire the Republican's fiscal accomplishments in a state with a Democratic-controlled legislature.
Jim Stergios, who directed Romney's office of environmental affairs, now leads the conservative Pioneer Institute in Boston. Stergios says the private research organization applauded Romney's narrowing the state's budget shortfall while preventing a broad-based tax increase.
Indeed, Romney proposed cutting the state income tax from 5.3 percent to 5 percent. The legislature blocked the plan, but the governor succeeded in pushing a bill to prevent the state from applying capital gains taxes retroactively. That gave taxpayers a $275 million rebate on capital gains taxes the state had collected in 2002.
The conservative Beacon Hill Institute gave Romney a B- for his first state budget. David Tuerck, the group's director, says the governor's policies helped bolster business in the state. Those policies included economic incentives to streamline regulations and ease burdens on local businesses. Small business advocates are generally positive: Jon Hurst of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts calls Romney "pro-employer," and Brian Gilmore of Associated Industries of Massachusetts says Romney was "overall, positive toward business."
But the praise isn't unalloyed. National groups like the anti-tax Club for Growth and the libertarian Cato Institute note that Romney increased a slew of fees for permits, licenses, and government services. The 45 percent increase in fees captured some $330 million. The governor also closed what he called tax "loopholes" for corporations, costing large companies nearly $300 million during the first three years.
Gilmore called the loophole closures "tax increases" for businesses required to pay more money to the state. Tuerck said the policy was unhelpful to business, but he doesn't think it represents a major failure by Romney.
For Tuerck, a much bigger worry looms when assessing the governor's legacy and his presidential prospects: "The big alarm bell that keeps everyone awake at night is Romneycare."
Bells weren't ringing when Romney signed his famous healthcare legislation at Boston's historic Faneuil Hall in April 2006, but the atmosphere was festive: A fife and drum corps entertained 300 ticketed guests, and the crowd greeted a beaming Romney with a 30-second standing ovation.
On stage, the supporters surrounding the governor were as striking as the elaborate ceremony: Conservative Robert Moffit of the Heritage Foundation and liberal Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy looked on as the governor signed the bill.
It was an unusual combination for an unusual bill. Romney hadn't pushed universal healthcare coverage during his run for governor, but the issue quickly surfaced: The state faced losing nearly $385 million in annual federal funds that Kennedy had secured for Massachusetts healthcare costs. The Bush administration warned Romney in 2004 that it would cut the money in 2005.
Romney and Kennedy-bitter rivals in the 1994 race for Massachusetts senator-convinced the administration to allow Massachusetts to keep the funds in exchange for a lofty plan: The state would achieve universal health coverage-something Kennedy longed to accomplish-while using the market-based solutions Romney supported.
Romney's plan was multi-layered: He took a large chunk of money the state gave hospitals to cover healthcare costs for the uninsured and created subsidies for low-income citizens to purchase healthcare for themselves. (The final legislation created the Commonwealth Care system that expanded subsidies to lower-income families ineligible for Medicaid.)
He also created a state health insurance exchange that would help individuals shop for healthcare coverage from a slate of private insurers. Another key piece of the plan: allowing individuals to purchase insurance using pre-tax dollars.
By January 2006, Romney was promoting his plan at a Heritage Foundation event in Washington, D.C. The group advised Romney's administration on the bill, especially encouraging the health insurance exchange and allowing individuals to use pre-tax dollars to purchase coverage. But the complex bill carried a major provision that's now an Achilles' heel in Romney's run for the presidency: a mandate to buy insurance.
The idea wasn't new or exclusively liberal: Romney followed some conservatives in arguing that taxpayers shouldn't have to cover emergency room costs for patients without insurance. Requiring individuals to purchase insurance was requiring them to be responsible, he argued.
A bigger sticking point was a different mandate: requiring employers to offer insurance to employees. Romney opposed the idea and vetoed the item before signing the bill. But the legislature, not surprisingly, overturned the veto, imposing fines on businesses with 11 or more full-time (or equivalent) employees.
Shortly after signing the legislation, Romney told The Boston Globe that the law would be a major part of his legacy as governor, but added: "I have no way of telling if it's going to be a help or a hindrance down the road."
Five years after Romney signed the bill, one reality is indisputable: Most Massachusetts citizens have insurance. But there's another indisputable reality: Massachusetts has the highest healthcare costs in the country.
Analysts say the reasons for high rates are complex, but most agree that the healthcare bill didn't include a substantial plan for containing costs. The legislation's focus on making healthcare accessible did little to make it affordable to families not receiving subsidies. Other problems: The legislature added requirements that weren't in the original bill, including higher standards for the minimum plan citizens must carry.
One of groups hit hardest by the legislation is the coalition that Romney had otherwise helped: small businesses. Hurst of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts says that the group's members have seen insurance premiums rise at least 15 percent each year.
That's a substantial cost to employers struggling in a weak economy. Some employers are opting to drop coverage and pay the relatively modest $295 fine per employee. That's particularly true of employers with workers earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, since those workers are now eligible for state subsidies to help cover costs. (An individual making up to $32,508 is eligible for subsidies.)
But other employers want to offer benefits: They struggle to pay the costs. Stergios of Pioneer Institute says the plan doesn't allow small businesses to negotiate better rates, and has been "wholly unresponsive to small business." Another problem: If employers offer insurance but don't comply with additional mandates, they could face substantial fines.
On a recent weekday morning, Bill Fields battled Boston traffic to assist a small business facing $35,000 in healthcare-related fines. Fields is director of Health Plan Solutions, a Massachusetts-based group that helps individuals and employers navigate the healthcare law. He says that's a complicated task, especially for employers who can't afford a human resources department: "If you try to read the regulations, your eyes go crossed."
The client that Fields is meeting today offers insurance to employees, but state auditors say the business didn't meet all the state regulations. (Requirements include paying a state-mandated percentage of premiums and filing reports.) Fields thinks he can help the business owner avoid the fines, but he says others end up paying. In one case, a small eatery that cleared less than $30,000 during the year faced $30,000 in fines, he says: "What they've done with small business is unconscionable."
Hunt, the CPA and congressman from Sandwich, Mass., says some of his clients have faced similar trouble. Others have struggled to conserve cash and pay insurance costs themselves. In a struggling economy dependent on small business for jobs, Hurst says the challenge is substantial: "I would argue that healthcare has been the single biggest deterrent for small business job growth in this recovery."
Analysts debate how much Romney's plan affected healthcare costs and whether he's responsible for changes the legislature made after he signed the bill. Michael Franc of Heritage says his group still thinks the original ideas were good, but says problems flowed from changes added later. Other conservatives who once spoke positively of Romney's plan-including Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and GOP presidential candidates Tim Pawlenty and Newt Gingrich-have tempered or withdrawn their approval in the wake of Obama's unpopular federal healthcare law.
Tuerck of Beacon Hill thinks Romney is culpable for the bill he started: "He had to know that the legislature was going to have its way with this issue." And Tuerck shares the concern of other conservatives over the healthcare mandate: "If you start telling people to buy one thing, you can start telling them to buy something else."
While Romney has said his plan "wasn't perfect," he hasn't said it was a mistake. Indeed, the former governor argues that states should experiment with local solutions to local problems. He says instituting such plans on a federal level would be a mistake. He promises to repeal Obama's healthcare law. (He also says he would press for tax breaks for individuals buying insurance and would push medical malpractice reform to reduce costs.)
Yet it may be difficult for the governor to distinguish his plan from Obama's, especially since administration officials have said they admired Romney's work. The Obama plan does include central features of Romney's effort, including a healthcare exchange and an individual mandate. Tuerck says he worries that the similarities would hurt Romney in a general election: "It takes a major debating point off the table. . . . Romneycare is a poison pill for the presidency."
Hunt, the Massachusetts congressman, understands concerns over Romney's healthcare plan, but believes he's still the most qualified candidate for the GOP nomination. He hopes that Romney can overcome the healthcare hurdle, even if it remains a substantial roadblock to the nomination.
Romney faces other hurdles, but he may find them lower than he did during his last run for the presidency. The once pro-abortion governor says he became pro-life while studying the issue of embryonic stem-cell research in Massachusetts. Critics accused him of flip-flopping on the issue during the last election, but his GOP opponents haven't pressed the issue this time.
During the first televised debate for GOP presidential candidates in New Hampshire in June, the CNN moderator asked Romney's fellow Republicans whether they questioned his position on abortion or thought the case was closed. The candidates remained silent until Herman Cain muttered: "Case closed." The case could re-open again over Romney's refusal to sign a pro-life group's pledge (see sidebar).
Mineau from Massachusetts Family Institute said Romney and his staff were helpful on issues related to life and marriage while he was governor. While some critics say Romney could have done more to block gay marriage in the state, Mineau says: "Nobody did more to fight same-sex marriage than Gov. Romney." (A group of eight Massachusetts social conservatives signed a letter supporting Romney's record in 2007.)
Anne Fox of Massachusetts Citizens for Life also said her group found Romney's staff accessible and easy to work with during his tenure. But Fox-who endorsed Republican Sam Brownback in the last GOP nominating contest-said she's disappointed that Massachusetts Commonwealth Care helps subsidize abortion. A Massachusetts court ruling mandated that any state-covered healthcare must cover abortion, but Fox and other pro-life advocates say it's troubling. "I'm not saying it's [Romney's] fault," says Fox. "But with this kind of program, these things are inherent, and we're learning that now."
Though Romney is a well-vetted candidate, there's still more to learn. Conservatives will likely ask more questions about issues like his support for ethanol subsidies, and how his belief in global warming would affect his policy.
Many evangelicals will ask how Romney's Mormon beliefs affect his approach to policy, and consider whether they would support a Mormon for the presidency (for a debate on that point, see p. 39). Meanwhile, the candidate may grapple with how much he should address the subject he mostly avoids in public.
Romney will also likely try to cultivate his image as a candidate who can connect with struggling Americans. During a recent chat with a group of unemployed citizens at a campaign stop, the multimillionaire quipped: "I'm also unemployed." Though the group laughed, the joke may have sounded tone-deaf. Romney chuckled, but his next statement was no joke for a man who seems determined to work hard: "I have my sight on a particular job."
If Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was looking for an opportunity to prove his pro-life credentials to skeptical Republicans, signing a pro-life group's "presidential pledge" could be tempting. But the former Massachusetts governor raised eyebrows instead by declaring: He's thoroughly pro-life-and he's not signing the pledge.
The Susan B. Anthony List, a private foundation that promotes pro-life candidates, asked Republican presidential hopefuls to sign a pledge declaring their pro-life commitment in nominating judges, appointing cabinet positions, de-funding abortion providers, and advancing legislation to protect unborn children capable of feeling pain.
While most of the GOP candidates signed the document, at least two declined: Romney and former Godfather's Pizza executive Herman Cain. Reaction was swift, mostly focused on Romney: GOP candidate and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum said he was "stunned" at Romney's refusal.
Romney didn't retreat. Instead, he penned his own pro-life pledge, explaining his objections to a particular piece of the Susan B. Anthony document that reads: "Advance pro-life legislation to permanently end all taxpayer funding of abortion in all domestic and international spending programs, and defund Planned Parenthood and all other contractors and recipients of federal funds with affiliates that fund or perform abortions."
Did that mean defunding every hospital system that performs abortions? Romney said that he supports defunding Planned Parenthood, but added: "It's one thing to end federal funding for an organization liked Planned Parenthood; it is entirely another to end all federal funding for thousands of hospitals across America."
Romney said he was also uncomfortable with the pledge's requirements for exclusively pro-life appointments to certain cabinet and executive branch positions, saying it "unduly burdens a president's ability to appoint the most qualified individuals to a broad array of key positions in the federal government."
It's unclear whether Romney's discomfort with the fine print's broad implications will satisfy voters, but the candidate-who believes abortion should be limited to cases of rape, incest, or saving the life of the mother-said he supported a slew of other pro-life ambitions: reversing Roe v. Wade, upholding the Hyde Amendment, reinstating the Mexico City policy, and advocating laws to protect unborn children from pain.