The Role of Massachusetts in the Presidential Debate


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Yowza, just when you think you’ve seen every version of Mitt Romney, here comes an entirely new one: ace debater. Whereas President Barack Obama’s delivery at Wednesday’s debate was halting and slow—his “Really, I have to be here?” vibe actually felt similar to Scott Brown’s distracted performance in his first debate—Romney seemed like he was on a 90-minute sugar high. Even though Obama actually talked for about five minutes longer than him, Romney’s crisp, energetic delivery made it seem like he was the one getting all the air time. At one point when Jim Lehrer dozed off, Romney actually started moderating the debate himself (Ok, Lehrer did not actually fall asleep—he slipped into a coma). All in all, pretty much everyone agrees that this round went convincingly to Romney.

So congratulations to our former governor. One thing that did stick in my craw, though, was Romney’s repeated references to Massachusetts as “my state.” As I’ve written about, he’s not exactly the most popular guy around here. And while it’s not like we can revoke his Massachusetts card (the Red Sox sell those, ya know), we can remember how he spent two-thirds of his last year as governor outside the state, working the conservative circuit and making jokes about what liberal moonbats we all are. Essentially, we’re only “my state” to him when it’s convenient. And during the debate, it was convenient. Massachusetts came up specifically with respect to healthcare and education, so let’s do a little review:

HEALTHCARE

Our state’s first mention came when Obama said, in reference to his healthcare plan, “The irony is that we’ve seen this model work really well in Massachusetts, because Governor Romney did a good thing, working with Democrats in the state to set up what is essentially the identical model and as a consequence people are covered there. It hasn’t destroyed jobs. And as a consequence, we now have a system in which we have the opportunity to start bringing down costs, as opposed to just leaving millions of people out in the cold.”

Romney’s response, if nothing else, pointed out the ridiculousness of modern politics. “I like the way we did it in Massachusetts. I like the fact that in my state, we had Republicans and Democrats come together and work together,” he said. “What you did instead was to push through a plan without a single Republican vote.” The hitch is that the Massachusetts legislature, wackadoodle as it may be from time to time, was much more willing to work with Romney than Republican members of Congress were to work with Obama. After all, the two healthcare plans are practically identical. Don’t believe me? How about MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, who helped shape both the Massachusetts plan and the nationwide one. As he said last year, “Basically, they’re the same fucking bill.”

Romney then went on to list a series of differences between Obama and Romneycare. We’ll take ’em one by one:

Romney: “We didn’t raise taxes. You’ve raised them by $1 trillion under Obamacare.” Ok, so the distinction here, I believe, is whether you consider the sum of money people are forced to pay in Massachusetts—and will be forced to pay nationwide—for ignoring the mandate to sign up for healthcare as a “penalty” or a “tax.” In Massachusetts, we officially call it a penalty. John Roberts quite famously decided that, as far as Obamacare goes, it’s a tax. Really, “tax” and “penalty” mean the same thing. This is splitting semantic hairs. The bills work the same, I promise.

Romney: “We didn’t cut Medicare. Of course, we don’t have Medicare, but we didn’t cut Medicare by $716 billion.” It’s true, we don’t have Medicare. But it’s more than a bit misleading to say that Obama cut Medicare by $716 billion.

Romney: “We didn’t put in place a board that can tell people ultimately what treatments they’re going to receive.” Wait, so you’re telling me that Bobby Valentine hasn’t been put before a death panel yet? Turns out, nobody anywhere has. What Romney said isn’t true.

Romney: “We didn’t also do something that I think a number of people across this country recognize, which is put—put people in a position where they’re going to lose the insurance they had and they wanted.” There’s truth to this, actually. According to factcheck.org, it’s likely that many Americans will have their health coverage switch, and some employers will change plans. Then again, that second part could happen now too. So Romney was one for four.

EDUCATION

Massachusetts came up again on the topic of education. “Well, first, I love great schools. Massachusetts, our schools are ranked number one of all 50 states,” Romney said. “And the key to great schools, great teachers. So I reject the idea that I don’t believe in great teachers or more teachers. Every school district, every state should make that decision on their own.” Got that? Mitt Romney LOVES great schools. So move over lakes, trees, and hymns. Now let’s be honest, our schools are pretty awesome. How else do you explain everyone in Massachusetts being smarter than the dopes in the rest of the country? (Whether our schools are first depends on who you ask, but let’s not be party poopers.) Romney’s role in making Massachusetts education so great, though, is not exactly so clear cut.

In July, the Globe’s Tracy Jan did a thorough and quite excellent review of Romney’s impact on education in the state. She wrote:

On the campaign trail, Romney proudly emphasizes Massachusetts’ national reputation for its stellar public K-12 education system. Bay State students routinely score at the top on national and international tests. But that achievement is largely credited to the state’s 1993 landmark education reform law that poured billions of dollars into schools, set academic standards, and spawned the standardized testing that Romney fiercely guarded.

Quickly summarized, Romney scored victories in taking on the teachers unions and promoting greater school choice, but did little to help non-English language learners, who were left out to dry by a ballot measure—which Romney supported—that eliminated bilingual education, replacing it to very ill-effect with a program of immersion (dumping kids who can’t speak English into classes taught in English).

Truth be told, though, Massachusetts’ excellence in education shouldn’t be credited to Romney or Deval Patrick or any other governor. It’s part of a long established tradition here of caring about learning. This goes all the way back to Horace Mann and the founding of Harvard and beyond. For any one person to claim credit for it is silly. But then again, so are a lot of the things Romney says about Massachusetts.