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Is Romney for Real?

The Journal Editorial Report

Paul Gigot: This week on "The Journal Editorial Report," Mitt Romney up close. Can the one-term Massachusetts governor turned Republican presidential candidate successfully position himself as the true conservative in the race? We'll examine his record. And with polls showing many Republicans looking for other alternatives, is there room in the GOP field for a dark-horse candidate? Plus, good news for thousands of students trapped in failing public schools. We have details after these headlines.

Gigot: Welcome to "The Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot. As Mitt Romney makes the transition from one-term governor to presidential candidate, his economic achievements in Massachusetts are taking center stage, with his first television ad touting him as the Republican governor who turned around a Democratic state.

One man familiar with his record in the Bay State is David Tuerck, economics chair and executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University. He joins me now from Boston.

David Tuerck, welcome to the program.

Tuerck: Thank you, Paul.

Gigot: You've watched the governor's record. What do you think is his single biggest accomplishment in Massachusetts that would recommend him to become a president?

Tuerck: Well, he did, in fact, hold the line on taxes in every significant sense. He gets at least an A-minus for that. And he did do some reorganization of government, which has helped make government work better here. Held the line on the growth of jobs.

But certainly his single biggest accomplishment is his health-care reform package. I would hasten to say there are many critics of that, and I have been among the critics. Yet at the end of day, it was a very, very significant accomplishment, especially when you consider the political culture in which he brought it about.

Gigot: Let's take those one at a time a time, particularly the fiscal record. He claims--the governor claims that he closed a $3 billion fiscal gap, budget deficit, without raising taxes. So did he raise taxes to do that or not?

Tuerck: Well, he did. He raised some taxes in the form of closing corporate loopholes, as he called them. That's something like $295 million in new revenue. And then closed--raised some fees, which raised, depending upon who you want to believe, somewhere between $260 million and $500 million in revenue. But this is small change in a state that collects $20 billion a year in taxes.

Most significantly, he kept the tax rate from going up any further. It had effectively been raised by the Legislature before he took office, and he was able to keep the Legislature from pushing it up higher. And there is a lot of pressure in the Legislature and from various sources and various--well, places in the state, including, ironically, some big-business forces, to push up the state tax rate. So he deserve as lot of credit for holding the line on that.

Gigot: One of the criticisms of President Bush is that's he's not been unwilling to use his veto pen to rein in spending. Was Gov. Romney willing to use that veto pen to do that in Massachusetts?

Tuerck: Oh, most certainly, he was. He vetoed hundreds of millions of dollars of spending. In many cases those vetoes were overridden, but that's understandable in light of the fact that the Democrats of a veto-proof majority in the state Legislature, and the fact that many of the Republicans are undependable for supporting a veto registered by a Republican governor. So he deserves a lot of credit for holding the line on taxes.

Gigot: On health care, the former governor made a big deal of this last year, standing next to Ted Kennedy at some point, touting the health-care reform. How does that look a year later? Because there's been a lot of complaints out of the state that in fact the price of insurance has not gone down, and that the market for insurance has not been liberalized the way the governor thought or broadcast.

Tuerck: Frankly, I think his health-care reform plan is in trouble. I think, in a way, it was hijacked, first by the state Legislature, which didn't give us any relief on mandated benefits except in a few instances. And now the so-called connector authority has raised the level of what they call minimum credible care so as to make health insurance more expensive than ever before. But I don't think Romney should be blamed for that. He tried to come up with a health-care plan that would be economically viable, and if he'd been succeeded by his lieutenant governor, who ran for governor but failed, I think that the plan might be doing much better today.

Gigot: Is it a model, though--it is a kind of health-care model that you could sell to the rest of the country? Or is it just going to be limited to Massachusetts?

Tuerck: I think that it has limited transportability. Massachusetts has some characteristics that make it peculiar. For one thing, the fraction of the uninsured of the total of the population is relatively low in Massachusetts. It is something like, say, 10% or so, whereas in other states, on the average, it's around 18%.

And also there was an issue in Massachusetts about getting some federal money, which was uniquely available here, which they obtained and thus made that part of the package that allowed this health-care plan to be created. And then, too, in Massachusetts, it was possible to get additional state funding from a Legislature that might, in the light of surpluses created under Romney, have instead cut taxes in other states.

So I think it has limited applicability elsewhere. Yet it did do a big service for Massachusetts and, indeed for the rest of the country, by putting a halt to momentum behind a health-care-for-all plan that would have led to a state takeover of health care. Many people don't give Romney credit for that. If he hadn't intervened with his plan, we would have gotten something far worse from the point of view of conservatives and free-market people like me. So he did put a stop to that.

Gigot: All right, well, David Tuerck, thank you so much for that perspective, and thanks for being here.

Tuerck: Thank you.

Gigot: More on Romney's record when we have come back. Plus recent polls suggest Republican primary voters are looking for other options. Is there room in the race for a dark-horse candidate? Our panel weighs in when "The Journal Editorial Report" continues.

Gigot: Welcome back. As Mitt Romney works to position himself as the conservative candidate in the GOP field, a recent poll finds nearly 6 in 10 primary voters looking for more choices in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

Joining the panel this week, Wall Street Journal columnist and editorial page deputy editor Dan Henninger, editorial board member Jason Riley and editor James Taranto.

James, what do you think Romney's main appeal is as a presidential candidate? What are the themes he's running on?

Taranto: Well, I would think his main appeal would be that he's somebody with administrative experience, that he's run a state, that he's competent. But he seems to be running as the social conservative candidate, which seems to me to be an odd approach for him to take, because it seems fake.

I don't know if you've seen this 1994 video of him debating Ted Kennedy in which he talks about why he is in favor of abortion, and he seems so sincere and convincing. He talks about this family friend who had to have an abortion. Oh, he was so happy that she didn't have to go to the back alley and so forth. And, you know, I mean, after that, I was set to go out and march in a pro-choice march. And now he's the pro-lifer. It just kind of seems like he's sort of been all over the map on this stuff.

Gigot: But James, shouldn't presidential candidates, or any politician, get credit if they convert to a belief or a cause and then stick with that cause? Ronald Reagan, for example, was not a pro-life candidate when he first started in politics. And I think he signed pro-choice legislation in California when he was governor. But then as a president candidate, he became a very solid pro-life conservative. Don't you get credit for seeing the light?

Taranto: Well, sure, but voters will have to judge whether this is really a conversion or whether it is fake.

Riley: You're right, and it's not just abortion. It's gun control; it's gay rights; it's affirmative action. He's moved to the right on all of these issues. And it's interesting to contrast his approach in appealing to social conservatives with Rudy Giuliani's approach. Because Giuliani has come out and said, I'm not a social conservative, but I'll appoint judges who are, so vote for me. Romney is instead taking a different approach and saying, I am now what I used to not be.

Henninger: We do have to kind of come to grips with the fact that--the idea that voters are a little bit upset or dissatisfied with the candidates they have now. I think it's a function of the artificiality of the campaign starting as early as it has.

Why is this campaign going on now? For one reason: Campaign finance reform forces them to go out and start raising money in $2,000 increments so they can get up to $20 million or $35 million. And so they're out there trying to appeal to different factions inside the party in a way that simply does come across as artificial. And I think it's the campaign financing.

Gigot: But do you credit Romney's new beliefs, or do you think, like James, that it's artificial?

Henninger: I agree with James. Remember George W. Bush. Everyone wondered why he was succeeding. He was succeeding because he seemed to believe what he was saying, and you felt that he believed what he was saying. And you don't quite feel that with Romney.

Gigot: But there is this hole in the field right now for a genuine conservative. As Jason pointed out, Rudy Giuliani is not a natural social conservative. A lot of economic and social conservatives don't trust John McCain. So why shouldn't Romney try to fill that gap in the field and try to persuade those voters?

Riley: Yeah, the one guy out there is Sam Brownback, who's a true social conservative. But he just doesn't have the name recognition. He can't raise the money. And so you've got a problem there.

What I find interesting is the left tells you social conservatives are sort of the tail wagging the Republican Party. But they're going to have to sort of hold their nose and vote for one of these front-runners, at least as things look right now. So if James Dobson is running the Republican Party, he's got a funny way of showing it.

Taranto: Well, the anecdotal evidence I hear is that a significant number of social conservatives--not all, by any stretch of the imagination--really respect Giuliani for being straight with them and also for promising to nominate conservative judges, which is really the most important thing to them.

And I think one other point that we have to look at here is, this is the first open Republican presidential nomination since 9/11. They say 9/11 changed everything. We don't know how it changed Republican presidential politics, but I suspect it changed it in ways that help Giuliani.

Gigot: Well, let's look at a poll. A recent poll, Zogby poll, showed--with Giuliani still ahead, McCain in second place. But Fred Thompson, who is not even a declared candidate, tied with Mitt Romney at 9%. Dan, do you think there is an opening in the field for a Fred Thompson or a Newt Gingrich to enter later this year?

Henninger: Thompson, yes. I think Thompson does convey the sort of personal belief and credibility that I was noting earlier.

Secondly, you've got to come to grips with that Giuliani number. Rudy is the one candidate associated with fighting the war on terror, and the war on terror, in poll after poll, remains the No.1 concern of the American people. It's kind of odd that the other candidates haven't done more to get a piece of that subject.

Riley: And the other reason there could be an opening for someone is because this process has started so early. And I think a Gingrich--or even someone like a Mike Bloomberg, another dark-horse candidate possibly--could be counting on the fact that people are just going to get fatigued of these front-runners and be looking for a new face.

Gigot: All right, Jason, we'll be watching for that new face.

Coming up, 21,000 kids in one struggling school district are about to get lucky. We have the details as a major boon to the charter school movement--when "The Journal Editorial Report" continues.

Gigot: The charter school movement got a big boost last week with news that the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP, will receive $65 million to create 42 new schools in Houston. Founded in 1994 as an alternative to the failing public schools there, KIPP now serves 12,000 students in 52 schools nationwide. More than 80% of KIPP students are low-income, yet they regularly outperform their traditional public-school counterparts in math and reading tests.

Jason, you've been following the education reform movement for a while now. Why is this KIPP story important?

Riley: Well, it's important because it's nice to see a successful model be rewarded by the nation's philanthropists, and that's what they did in Houston last week. They put up $65 million, some of the wealthy families--the Walton family, the Gateses, the Dells--to KIPP, to these two guys, David Levin and Mike Feinberg, that started KIPP back in 1994. And KIPP is going to be able to expand to 42 schools, and they deserve it. They produced results. Standardized test scores, well ahead of their traditional counterparts in Houston and around the country. So it's nice to see a successful model be able to expand in this way.

Gigot: Charter schools are of course public schools. These aren't voucher schools. These are public schools. But they're free from union rules and the bureaucratic rules that public schools have to operate in. How is the movement doing nationwide?

Riley: Pretty well. There are about 4,000 charter schools now in the country, and they enroll more than a million students nationwide. And the nice thing is--not all of them are great. Not all of them are up to the KIPP standard. But the ones that aren't good go away, unlike bad public schools.

Gigot: Which stay forever and ever.

Riley: Which stay forever and ever and ever. And so, what's nice is the innovation. Charter schools are--the people who run them, the administrators, are able to try and see what works and be nimble. If a curriculum isn't working, if they want a longer school day, a longer school year, they're able to experiment. And it's working.

Henninger: And the problem is that none of those things is possible now in the average public school, because of union rules. The public school is not your father's public school. These unions are running those schools like you would run a coal mine or an auto factory. They're like industrial unions. They are just simply in the grip of a straitjacket that does not allow the principals to choose the good teachers, put them where they want to. And as a result, they're in decline.

Gigot: There's a backlash, too, in some parts of the country, by the unions, being fed by the unions. In Ohio, for example, the new Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, is trying to stop growth in charter schools from the 300 or so they have. And in New York State, which has a cap of 100. There are a million public-school students in New York City, and there's a cap of 100 schools in the whole state.

Taranto: Well, Jason makes the point that charter schools that don't work go away. If the teachers unions had their way the schools, the charter schools that do work would go away.

You know, Paul, as you know, I'm an optimistic guy. But I find this subject of education unremittingly grim, because here we are, sitting on television, talking about how wonderful it is that there are a few schools here and there that are actually able to educate children. Something is terribly wrong with education in this country.

Gigot: There's some good, interesting evidence, too, Jason, is there not, that these charter schools and voucher schools, when they are introduced into a school district, really do help the public schools improve. The competition--Caroline Hoxby, the Harvard economist, has done some studies of the impact of vouchers in Milwaukee, for example. So competition isn't just a zero-sum game where only the charters or the vouchers are helped. The public schools can also--

Riley: Yeah, they don't want to lose students, and so their fear of losing students can, in some cases, help them to improve.

Gigot: Is there any way politically, Dan--the teacher unions are so powerful in the Democratic Party--can we beat them in a public policy sense?

Henninger: It's hard for me to see how. In Ohio, they supported Ted Strickland, and Strickland got elected, and as a result, he's cutting down the voucher program down in Ohio.

I really have gotten to the point where I think the public-school model is irreparably broken, because any potential reform gets gridlocked by politics now. And I think probably we're going to have to try to go to a more independently based school system.

Gigot: All right, we'll be watching that. Thanks, Dan.

We have to take one more break. When we come back, our "Hits and Misses" of the week.

Gigot: Winners and losers, picks and pans, "Hits and Misses," it's our way of calling attention to the best and the worst of the week.

Item one, former governor Jeb Bush is snubbed by the faculty at the University of Florida. Dan?

Henninger: Yeah, the faculty senate at the University of Florida has just voted, 38-28, to deny outgoing governor Bush an honorary degree. This despite the fact that as he was on his way out, he set aside $20 million for the University of Florida, which the president was going to use to hire 200 new faculty members. What's the explanation? Two reasons: A) His last name is Bush. B) He's a Republican.

Now, we've got to figure out a solution to this impasse, and I think we've got one. I propose an exchange program. Let's send these 38 professors down to the University of Havana in Cuba, and let's import 38 professors from Cuba's prisons to Gainesville, where they might do some good.

Gigot: All right, Dan, thanks.

Next, some new strategies in the fight against malaria. Jason?

Riley: Yes, The Economist magazine reports that a couple researchers at Johns Hopkins University want to fight malaria by genetically modifying the mosquitoes that carry the disease. I wish them well. But I have a better idea. They should spray the pesticide DDT everywhere they can. It's the most effective way to prevent the disease. We know this because it is how we stopped it here in the U.S.

I was in Africa, in sub-Sahara Africa, in Ghana recently, reporting on malaria, which kills about a million people in the Third World every year, mostly women and children. And they can't wait for genetically modified mosquitoes. People are dying right now. The only opposition to DDT is political, from the environmentalists. But there is absolutely no evidence that DDT, sprayed in the amounts needed to stop malaria, harms the environment or humans or anyone else. And we should be using DDT.

Gigot: All right, Jason, thanks.

Finally, an aide to Virginia Sen. Jim Webb finds himself in some pretty hot water. James?

Taranto: Yes, Paul, Jim Webb is a newly elected Democratic Senator from Virginia, and a strong Second Amendment advocate. When he's home in Virginia, he packs heat.

His aide was arrested this week for apparently accidentally trying to bring a briefcase that contained the senator's gun into the Capitol. Now, what amazed me about this story is, it turns out congressmen are actually allowed to bring firearms onto Capitol property, whereas ordinary residents of the District of Columbia aren't allowed to have guns in their homes for self-protection. It seems like there's a disconnect here. Congressmen shouldn't be a privileged class, should they?

Gigot: They are in other ways, aren't they? So I guess this means Jim Webb is in favor of the recent D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decision, overturning the D.C. gun laws.

Taranto: On Second Amendments grounds. Yes, I would think so.

Gigot: All right, James.

That's it for this week's edition of "The Journal Editorial Report." Thanks to Dan Henninger, Jason Riley and James Taranto. I'm Paul Gigot, and thanks to all of you for watching. We hope to see you right here next week.

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