Romney's Dearth of Trade Missions Reveals Priorities

Romney's Dearth of Trade Missions Reveals Priorities

By Erin McPike - May 1, 2012

During his four years as governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney eschewed trade missions, viewing such expensive trips abroad as a waste of taxpayer money.

That attitude may offer a glimpse into Romney's penchant for budget-cutting: Whether working as a management consultant for Bain Capital, CEO of the Salt Lake City Olympic Games in 2002, or as governor, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee has a knack for squeezing money out of the budgets he oversees. But to the Democrats opposing him -- and even to some of his GOP supporters -- forgoing trade missions underscores a belief that Romney went too far to curb government spending and functions.

Still, Romney’s approach to trade missions helps paint a clearer picture for voters searching for philosophical differences between the two major-party candidates for president. As a longtime business consultant, Romney learned how to navigate companies’ financial matters on a situational basis -- a skill he apparently applied as governor.

During his time in office, Romney made three overseas trips -- to Guantanamo; to Iraq and Afghanistan; and to China. All were in 2006, the final year of his term, when he was preparing to launch a presidential bid in the 2008 election. According to campaign spokesman Ryan Williams, the visit to Guantanamo was a fact-finding trip financed by the federal government. The U.S. also paid for his trip to Iraq and Afghanistan to visit American troops. Romney self-financed his trek to China, which his office billed as an effort to learn more about the region.

Kerry Healey, who served as Romney’s lieutenant governor and now serves as one of his leading surrogates, cautioned that despite the lack of travel, he still found ways to promote trade.

“It's true that Gov. Romney didn't feel that it was appropriate to spend tax dollars on trade missions at a time when Massachusetts was facing a projected $3 billion budget gap,” she said. “But that did not mean that he didn't value outreach to foreign investors and buyers. He welcomed and assisted numerous trade missions from around the world to Massachusetts during our time in office, and over Gov. Romney's time in office, exports increased by 44 percent.”

Citing that same statistic, Romney’s secretary of economic development during his tenure explained that his onetime boss approached trade with a “practical touch.”

“We had a very fortunate situation that Massachusetts received a very heavy volume of visitors from foreign companies and foreign governments, and we played to that advantage,” Ranch Kimball said, noting that as a port city on the Atlantic and with its high degree of commerce, Boston is naturally well positioned to attract overseas interests.

To the one-term governor, the trade missions that his Bay State predecessors took seemed like junkets. According to the Jewish Advocate newspaper, in 2004 Romney said, “I haven't done any trade missions. My initial review of trade missions of the past is that some have looked an awful lot like boondoggles, with not a lot about actually getting business done. So, I haven't done any, nor have I scheduled any yet.”

And in his 2004 book about taking the reins of the Winter Games, “Turnaround,” Romney describes in great detail his approach to slashing that budget.

“We further cut our travel budget by eliminating entourages, minimizing stays and staying in economy hotels,” he wrote, adding that he placed a bigger premium on video-conferencing to avoid the cost of travel. Romney noted throughout the book that he favored cutting extraneous and luxury expenses associated with business practices, a standard he seemed to apply in his role as governor.

Campaign officials acknowledge that as president, Romney certainly would have to increase his international travel to attract foreign investment in the U.S., but that his approach as governor suggests he would do so with some degree of austerity in mind.

Two current governors who have weathered the job-loss storm better than others and have seen improved business climates in their states were also in the GOP presidential mix this election cycle. One of them, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, has taken seven trade missions in his two terms, including six to Asia and one to Europe.

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Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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