Mitt Romney launched his four-year term as governor of Massachusetts with an inaugural address that pronounced state government "slow, bureaucratic, and disconnected" and declared that under his leadership there would instead be a "realignment toward the nimble and inventive."
It wasn't exactly great oratory. (Romney's main example of a nimble and inventive organization was, of all things, al-Qaeda.) It wasn't great prophecy, either. Four years later, Massachusetts state government is pretty much the same slow, bureaucratic, and disconnected behemoth it was in 2003. It takes more than a lone Republican governor to change a political culture as dreary and sluggish as the one entrenched in the overwhelmingly Democratic Massachusetts State House.
But in less than two weeks since his red-carpet walk out of the governor's office and into the 2008 presidential marathon, Romney has made it clear that when it comes to nimble and inventive maneuvering, he'll be the candidate to beat.
At 4 p.m. on January 3, Romney's lawyer filed the papers creating a presidential exploratory committee. Moments later, an official and very sleek campaign website was online. At 4:11 p.m., the campaign's introductory press release had been e-mailed to journalists. Thirty minutes later came another three pages of statements by and about Romney, most of them attesting to his conservative credentials.
Last Monday, the Romney campaign held its first major fund-raising event, a high-powered call-a-thon that pulled in $6.5 million. It demolished not only the modern record for political donations raised in a single day, but the paradigm of what a campaign fund-raiser can be. Instead of inviting several hundred supporters to a $1,000-a-head dinner, Romney invited several hundred political and financial all-stars eminentoes like Governor Matt Blunt of Missouri and eBay chief executive Meg Whitman to spend a day working their Rolodexes and dialing for dollars. Unlike a typical boiler-room operation run out of a hole-in-the-wall, Romney's "National Call Day" was staged in a giant convention center, with old and new media on hand to record all the action.
All in all, it was a remarkable display of confidence, smarts, and organization. It suggested, as Boston blogger Dean Barnett put it, "that the Romney campaign, like his business career, will be marked by innovation. The Romney campaign won't be relying on techniques that were moldy back when David Letterman was actually funny. . . As he has done throughout his career, Mitt Romney will build a better mousetrap."
An even better test of Romney's nimbleness came just two days later, in the form of a video anonymously posted on YouTube.com . It showed clips of Romney debating Ted Kennedy during their 1994 Senate race clips that showed how avidly Romney had portrayed himself as a social liberal when he first ran for office in Massachusetts. From staunchly defending abortion rights to disavowing Ronald Reagan, Romney came across back then as anything but the unabashed conservative he is running as today.
The campaign's response was immediate, decisive and very 21st century. Within hours, Romney did an interview with blogosphere eminence Glenn Reynolds and his wife, Helen, who asked him point-blank to explain "this YouTube video from 1994 showing you as a flip-flopper." They posted Romney's answer on Instapundit, their popular blog. In addition, a video of Romney crisply responding to the Reynoldses was soon up on the campaign's website and on YouTube as well. Whatever one thinks of Romney's political views, his campaign is setting new standards for responsiveness, savvy, and speed.
But Romney knows that high-tech agility at getting out his message ultimately counts for nothing if that message is rejected by voters. As a Senate candidate in 1994, Romney was at pains to portray himself as a liberal RINO a Republican In Name Only, smartly saluting Roe v. Wade and declaring that he would do more for gay rights than Ted Kennedy.
"Inhibited by a fear of being (gasp!) controversial," I wrote at the time, Romney "is tiptoeing through his campaign, determined to emit no 'shockers' and antagonize no voters." Voters didn't buy his act, and Romney lost in a landslide even as Republican Governor Bill Weld, running hard on an agenda of tax cuts, capital punishment, and workfare, was re elected in a cakewalk.
Romney's very public migration rightward over the last few years is a different kind of act, one intended not to hide his real views but to liberate them. In 1994, Romney struck me as an extraordinarily bright, talented, and decent man and a political neophyte who fell for the canard that the only way a conservative could win in Massachusetts was by passing for liberal.
Thirteen years later, Romney is where he should have been all along. Yes, it took some tap-dancing and artful dodging to get from there to here, and some voters will wonder which Mitt Romney, the 1994 edition or the one on offer today, is the real deal. Can he put those doubts to rest? If he's going to win his party's nomination, he'll have to.