The Republican presidential field for 2008 is led by one of the nation's greatest military heroes, a seasoned senator, one of the most famous and best-liked men in America. Running hard alongside him is the most successful mayor in American history, the man who saved New York City from crime and defended it from terrorism. And the third front-tier candidate is . . . a one term governor of Massachusetts.
How did this happen? How can it be that Governor Mitt Romney has come to be seen as one of the top three contenders for a presidential nomination? Romney has benefited from the secret issue in the 2008 presidential race: competence. Since Hurricane Katrina, Americans have lost faith in George W. Bush's ability to manage the government. In every poll conducted after the summer of 2005, about 60% of Americans describe Bush as "ineffective." Suddenly, everybody wants a president who can make government work.
Amazingly, though, hardly any of the leading 2008 candidates have ever run anything bigger than a senator's office. John McCain? The former pilot, congressman and senator has zero administrative experience. Hillary Clinton? She had a good view of how the White House is run--but no responsibility for running it. Barack Obama? A former community activist, state legislator and two-year veteran of the U.S. Senate--zilch. Al Gore? He's in the same situation as Hillary Clinton. Tom Vilsack, the Democratic governor of Iowa, and Mike Huckabee, Republican governor of Arkansas, are both super long shots.In fact, only two candidates in the race have ever successfully managed a large organization: Rudy Giuliani and . . . Mitt Romney.
Giuliani's record everybody knows. It could well be argued that he is the greatest public-sector executive in the United States. But his personal history is messy, and he holds views on issues like abortion, immigration, same-sex marriage and gun control that may give Republican primary voters serious pause. His own recently leaked secret campaign documents express serious doubt whether he will in the end decide to run at all.
Romney's record is not so well known as Giuliani's. But in its own sphere, it is as impressive. In 1984, Romney launched a venture capital firm that funded, among other successes, a startup called Staples. Over his 14 years at the firm, he earned an annual return of 113%. When the 2002 Olympics tumbled into scandal and financial crisis, the state of Utah called on Romney--and the games finished with a US$100-million profit.Romney had unsuccessfully challenged Ted Kennedy for a Massachusetts Senate seat in 1994. In 2002, he ran for the governorship. He inherited a US$3-billion deficit; over the next four years, he balanced the state's budget without raising taxes.
These facts, impressive as they are, do not quite convey Romney's appeal. Romney built his business success on a voracious appetite for data, a willingness to hear contrary opinions and a cool and deliberate decision-making style. Although his politics broadly align with George W. Bush's, his intellectual and managerial style could not differ more. And nowhere did he display that intellectual style more than with his central achievement as governor: his universal health care plan.
Massachusetts in 2002 was spending an enormous amount of public money on health care--and yet leaving almost one 10th of its population uncovered. Romney became more and more interested in this problem and demanded a detailed survey of the uninsured population.
The big surprise revealed by Romney's investigation: The uninsured were not as poor as everybody had assumed they were. A majority of them could have bought health insurance if they wanted to--they chose not to buy, because they regarded health insurance as a bad deal. It cost too much--especially for the self-employed, for whom health insurance is not tax deductible. It covered too much. And everybody knew that even if you did not buy it, hospitals would care for you all the same. Romney's solution: He changed state law to allow insurers to sell cheaper plans to young workers. He found a loophole in federal law that enabled the self-employed to buy insurance with after- tax dollars, just like employees. He redirected state and federal Medicaid dollars to subsidize private insurance for the poor. And then he persuaded the legislature to require everybody to buy an insurance policy: no more free riding at hospital emergency rooms.
No major presidential candidate other than Rudy Giuliani can tell a story of practical problem- solving like this. It is exactly the kind of story that Republicans--and Americans--yearn to hear. And that's why (of all unlikely things!) a Mormon from Massachusetts is emerging as a candidate to watch in 2008.
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