Journalists and political rivals have scoured Mitt Romney's record running Bain Capital and the Salt Lake City Olympics, in search not only of scandal but also for clues about how he would exercise his duties as president of the United States.
Far less scrutiny has been given to Mr. Romney's time in another, far more relevant job—the four years he spent as governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
The record of that period, from January 2003 through December 2006, is replete with examples of ways the management-consultant-turned-investor brought his private-sector sensibilities to his public responsibilities.
As governor, Mr. Romney stocked his cabinet with former business executives, including ex-Fidelity Investments Vice Chairman Robert C. Pozen, rather than the more traditional cadre of graying lawmakers and party stalwarts. Mr. Romney gave his cabinet secretaries considerable authority and autonomy. They reported to him much as the heads of business units would report to a CEO.
In searching for cuts—the state faced a budget gap in the billions of dollars when Mr. Romney took office—he did something that had become second nature: He brought in consultants to review the biggest portions of the state budget.
The state didn't raise taxes, but steps it took under Mr. Romney had the same effect on households and some business owners.
Local aid—essentially state income-tax receipts funneled to cities and towns based in part on need—was reduced substantially. Municipalities were left e ither to raise property taxes or cut spending. Many professionals were required to pay significantly more for their state licenses.
But some of the budget changes Mr. Romney championed have been overlooked or ignored by critics trying to portray him as a stooge for corporate interests.
He aggressively attacked certain loopholes that businesses were exploiting; one of the effects was to make it much harder for Massachusetts corporations to reduce tax liabilities by registering trademarks in other states. His administration went after banks that were avoiding tax liabilities by putting assets in real-estate investment trusts. Some business leaders, especially in financial services, felt betrayed.
When it came time to craft the piece of legislation that has become Mr. Romney's biggest Massachusetts legacy and perhaps his chief national political liability—the 2006 health-care overhaul that would become known as RomneyCare—he again turned to private-sector consultants.
Leaders of major stakeholders, including insurance companies, played important roles. So did some lawmakers. But Mr. Romney relied on the consultants to dig deeply into a fundamental problem: Why were so many people not buying health insurance?
Overall, the governor and his aides approached the problem of uninsured state residents as a financial challenge that needed to be solved. The driving motivation was to stop forcing hospitals to provide expensive care—especially in emergency rooms—for free. Democratic legislators, with some cajoling, got behind the measure on the grounds that expanding the rolls of the insured was morally the right thing to do.
Outside public view, Mr. Romney's professional relationships in some ways mirrored those of longtime CEOs with tight inner circles. He often displayed an aloofness bordering on antipathy when it came to members of the public, and outright distaste for members of the media, but many people who worked closely with him would confide that they'd walk over hot coals for him.
Mr. Romney was less successful when he brought his take-charge attitude to the political aspects of his job. Unlike his three immediate predecessors, all Republicans, Mr. Romney did not enjoy any built-in advantages in dealing with the overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature. He had neither the votes to sustain vetoes nor the residual goodwill that came with having served in either house.
The obvious solution: Replace Democrats with Republicans. The governor took part in a GOP initiative that put 131 Republican challengers in fights to unseat Democrats in 2004. The effort was bold—and politically disastrous. Many of the GOP candidates would have been long shots under normal circumstances.
But home state Sen. John Kerry was running for president that year, driving turnout among Democrats. The GOP challengers were clobbered. Democrats expanded their majority in both houses of the legislature. Worse for Mr. Romney, lawmakers who may have been willing at least to entertain the idea of working across party lines with him lost interest.
Mr. Romney's practical, businessman's approach to governing had other political liabilities. As Brett Arends, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, noted in his 2012 book, "The Romney Files," Mr. Romney rebrands himself with an alacrity that suggests he sometimes sees making public statements as an exercise in positioning a product rather than an opportunity to stake out positions based on convictions.
What does Mr. Romney's Massachusetts experience suggest about how he'd run things from the Oval Office? It's a safe bet that defenders of government spending from both parties will have to bolster their data with well-founded economic arguments if they want him to stay his hand.
There's a good chance his champions in corporate America and on Wall Street will find themselves disappointed—even severely disappointed—if he makes good on his promise to rein in business-tax loopholes and other government pandering to companies.
And it's more likely that Mr. Romney will try to reform ObamaCare than make good on his vow to repeal it. For one thing, he won't have the votes for repeal unless the Republicans win the Senate.
But he also seems not to have entirely given up the belief that getting people to buy health insurance is a fundamental financial necessity—that's one reason he will not disavow the near-universal coverage he helped bring to Massachusetts. Then again, if Congress moves to defund ObamaCare and the public rejoices, he may find it beneficial to his brand to get on board.
George W. Bush was sometimes described prior to his taking office as the country's first M.B.A. president. To the extent he ever brought a business approach to his Oval Office duties, that ended with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and his immediate reorientation toward foreign policy.
Should Mitt Romney win in November, he will be the first true M.B.A. president, just as he was the first M.B.A. governor in Massachusetts. And unlike his experience as governor, as president he will be unfettered by the distraction of aiming for higher office.
Mr. Convey is a vice president at O'Neill & Associates, a Boston-based public relations and government relations firm. He was a journalist in Boston for 17 years.
A version of this article appeared September 11, 2012, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Massachusetts Lessons About a President Romney.
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