When the Watergate scandal exploded in the mid-1970’s and the nation turned on its president, a peculiar bumper sticker began appearing on the Saabs and Volvos of the Greater Boston area: Framed by an outline of the state of Massachusetts, its message simply declared, “We told you so!” Ridiculed just a few years earlier for siding with peacenik George McGovern, Massachusetts was giving itself a pat on the back for seeing through Richard Nixon when no other state did.
Maybe Shannon O’Brien, the state’s former treasurer, should consider fashioning her own “I told you so” car accessory.
Five years ago, Ms. O’Brien was the Democratic nominee for governor of Massachusetts. Her opponent was Mitt Romney, who, fresh from his Olympic organizing public relations triumph, had adopted a platform—flexibly conservative on fiscal issues, environment-friendly, and liberal on social issues—that just so happened to mesh perfectly with the independent-minded suburbanites who swing elections in the Bay State. Ms. O’Brien, then a 43-year-old moderate who’d won praise for whipping the scandal-devastated State Treasury back into shape, warned that he didn’t mean much of what he was saying, particularly when it came to abortion rights. Not many people listened to her.
Not halfway through Mr. Romney’s single term in office, her predictions began coming true. One by one, the governor moved away from the positions he embraced in 2002, until finally he was traveling the country pitching himself as a family values conservative and delighting right-wing audiences with jokes at his home state’s expense. By the eve of the 2006 gubernatorial election, Mr. Romney—who’d opted not to run again—was viewed favorably by just 35 percent of Massachusetts voters. (By contrast, the Democrat who won that election, Deval Patrick, scored a 60-24 percent favorable rating in the same poll.) Proudly prescient Massachusetts had egg on its face: It had been used.
Now, the man who once whispered sweet nothings to liberal Massachusetts is wooing conservatives in Iowa and South Carolina by channeling Jesse Helms. Once again, some of his foes are asking whether he really means any of it. And once again—to believe the polls that have Mr. Romney ahead by double-digits in several early states—the protests are falling on deaf ears.
Back in Massachusetts, Ms. O’Brien, who now runs the Girl Scouts organization for Greater Boston and is supporting Hillary Clinton for president, said that even she’s surprised by the transformation.
“I totally discounted Romney when there was first talk of him running for president,” she said in a recent interview in the cafe of the Jurys Hotel in Boston. “And my point was, ‘Those conservatives will kill him. They’ll never vote for him.’ Well, guess what? He’s flipped every single position that would offend them, and—and I’m not the first person to say this—because many of the Republicans tend to be perhaps a little more evangelical, a little more appreciative of redemption and turning yourself around, he’s been able to walk away from that.”
But there’s something else to Mr. Romney’s appeal, a phenomenon that Ms. O’Brien witnessed during her own campaign and that is at work now: Mr. Romney knows how to make an exceedingly good first impression, one that has everything to do with personality and nothing to do with ideology. The effect, very often, is that his target voters want to like him. And because of that, they give him the benefit of the doubt when the sincerity of his political convictions is later called into question.
For Ms. O’Brien, this became clear in their climactic debate, a late October showdown in 2002. Just weeks earlier, Ms. O’Brien’s lead had been approaching double digits, but by debate night the contest was dead even. The television audience was large. Tim Russert was called in to moderate. The most dramatic moment came when the topic turned to abortion—a litmus test issue for the socially liberal bedroom community dwellers who would decide the election.
On paper, Mr. Romney’s position was far from clear. He’d run for the Senate in 1994 and in the early days of that race—when it looked like he’d face a stiff primary fight with a self-funding pro-choice Republican—he’d accepted an endorsement from the Massachusetts Citizens for Life. But he quickly distanced himself from it and ran against Ted Kennedy as a proud abortion-rights supporter. A few years later, though, he found himself in Utah, running the Olympics and flirting with running for office there after the Games. In the process, he wrote a letter to a Utah newspaper disavowing the pro-choice label, but saying little else. Finally, he returned to Massachusetts to run in 2002—and re-embraced his old pro-choice ways.
Ms. O’Brien failed to parlay these inconsistencies into a sense of alarm among those watching the debate.
Seated across from him, she asserted her own support for abortion rights and challenged Mr. Romney’s. He smiled and calmly reassured voters, “I’ve been very clear on that. I will preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose and am devoted and dedicated to honoring my word in that regard.” He then affirmed his support for a parental notification law—also popular with the pro-choice suburbanites—and declared that his abortion views were indistinguishable from Ms. O’Brien’s.
Given a chance to respond, Ms. O’Brien catalogued Mr. Romney’s previous contortions on the issue and recycled Ted Kennedy’s 1994 assertion that, on abortion, Mr. Romney is not pro-choice or anti-choice, but rather multiple-choice.
In the same steady voice, Mr. Romney then fired back by invoking his mother and what he called her “courageous” pro-choice stance when she’d run for the Senate in Michigan in the pre-Roe era.
“I’m in favor of preserving and protecting a woman’s right to choose,” he once again asserted. “And your effort to continue to try and create fear and deception here is unbecoming. It’s an issue that’s important. I’ve established my position very clearly.”
The exchange proved devastating to Ms. O’Brien. For swing voters, Mr. Romney had said all of the magic words and had said them in a way that sounded thoughtful and sincere. And that he’d tied his conviction to his mother only made his pleadings more believable. Meanwhile, Ms. O’Brien had offered viewers at home only a confusing chronology of Mr. Romney’s abortion stands—his letter to the editor in Utah was an abstract concept to them—and, while he was speaking, a facial expression that almost looked simpering. When he called her “unbecoming,” it registered with more than a few viewers.
“He was trying to make me look unattractive and, frankly, bitchy,” Ms. O’Brien recalled. “And the fact that I kept insisting that he wasn’t telling the truth, it was almost like, ‘Oh, you’re being rude.’ I mean, I look at myself now on YouTube—I know in my mind I’m going, ‘This guy is just lying through his teeth.’
“My face betrayed this huge smirk, like, ‘You are just so not telling the truth.’ And he took that into a she’s-really-not-very-nice issue. You know, she’s not very becoming. She’s unbecoming. She’s rude. She keeps saying that, and she’s scaring people. I was perceived as being too aggressive and too nasty with him.”
Some feminists griped about Mr. Romney’s use of the word “unbecoming,” but he’d scored his victory. He didn’t win solely because of abortion. Ms. O’Brien’s close relationships with several icons of the state’s Democratic machinery made her supremely vulnerable to Mr. Romney’s charge that she was the tainted insider in the race. But the voters with whom that message resonated, suburban independents who support Democrats at the presidential level, only flocked to Mr. Romney after he satisfied them that he was not the kind of moral crusader they identified with the national G.O.P.
On Election Day 2002, Mr. Romney received 49 percent of the vote, while Ms. O’Brien scored just under 45 percent. But less than two years after taking office, Mr. Romney all but abandoned the governorship, swearing off most of what he’d said in 2002 and hitting the national G.O.P. circuit in pursuit of the 2008 nomination. In the summer of 2005, after an awkward six-month dance, he formally announced that he was pro-life.
Ms. O’Brien, who spent two years as an investigative reporter for a Boston television station after the campaign, says she hears from people “all the time” who express regret for supporting Mr. Romney over her. The man they see running around the country bears little resemblance to the one who courted them so earnestly just five years ago.
“I think he understands you craft your own image, and that’s what he’s done,” Ms. O’Brien said of her old foe. “And if you look at his favorable-unfavorable here in Massachusetts, it’s highly unfavorable, because people feel like he didn’t do the job. They feel like he didn’t have Massachusetts’ interest at heart.”
In response, Romney campaign spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom suggested that Ms. O’Brien’s criticisms stemmed more from the resentment of losing than anything else. “There is no wine more mind-altering than that made from sour grapes,” he said, “and it sounds like Shannon O’Brien’s been drinking liberally from the cup.”
As Ms. O’Brien likes to point out, though, some of Mr. Romney’s current G.O.P. foes—Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee, for instance—sometimes sound a little like she once did as they warn Republicans to be wary of Mr. Romney’s newly strident social conservatism.
“It’s the very, very rudimentary back-of-the-brain stuff that people remember,” she theorized. “They don’t always process it at the front of their brain, but in the back of their brain is: Good-looking, passionate about the fact that he’s pro-life, passionate about the fact that he’s anti-tax. Meanwhile, when he ran against me he was pro-choice and he refused to sign a no-new-taxes pledge.”
But Ms. O’Brien also suggested that Mr. Romney has weaknesses.
For one, “he was clumsy, and he still is a little clumsy when you throw him a question he hasn’t answered or practiced before.” This tendency was on display when Mr. Romney recently told the mother of a soldier in Iraq that his own sons were serving the country—by helping with his campaign.
Another potential vulnerability, according to Ms. O’Brien: “Quite often he can come across as kind of smarmy when he’s trying to project warmth.” Ms. O’Brien recalled the low point of Mr. Romney’s 2002 campaign: critical and popular revulsion to a series of Romney ads that painted a picture of an Ozzie-and-Harriet domestic existence. By the time the ads were pulled in early October 2002, Ms. O’Brien had opened a lead of nearly 10 points.
Ms. O’Brien believes that if Mrs. Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, she will be able to make somewhat more of Mr. Romney’s equivocations because his flip-flops during his presidential campaign have been more blatant and public than they were back in Massachusetts.
“Now he’s got a track record,” Ms. O’Brien said.
No one knows what kind of governor Shannon O’Brien would have made. But surely it’s crossed more than a few minds in Massachusetts: If we’d listened to her five years ago, no one would be talking about Mitt Romney today.