I first met Mitt Romney in 1994. At the time I was working for the Republican Leader of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Mr. Romney was running against the state’s most senior Democrat, US Senator Edward Kennedy, and dropped by our office at the State House in Boston to introduce himself to some Republican legislators.
This was his first political race. When he walked into the room, no one recognized him. Most candidates for statewide office are current or former politicians, but Mr. Romney, who had spent his career in the private sector, was an outsider with little name recognition among voters and no grass roots political organization.
Despite his lack of campaign experience, he proved to be a formidable challenger, defying most people’s expectations. Senator Kennedy won the race but by the smallest margin in his re-election career.
Mr. Romney has journeyed a long way since he introduced himself to Massachusetts voters in 1994. Now he is running for president of the United States. At a time when economic insecurity will be the paramount issue for voters, he is the Republican Party’s best chance to win the White House in 2012.
Not since Jimmy Carter was president has there been such a crisis of confidence in America. Unemployment remains above 9 percent. Our debt-to-GDP ratio is more than 95%, a trajectory that is unsustainable.
Standard & Poor’s recently downgraded the country’s coveted AAA credit rating. And our elected leaders continue to kick the can down the road on reforming Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the country’s three major budget-busters.
To combat the multitude of complex leadership, financial, and operational problems facing the Federal government, the next president will need to wear three leadership hats – chief executive officer, chief financial officer and chief operations officer.
Mr. Romney has experience in all three “C-level” functions. He spent the bulk of his career in the private sector at Bain Capital, a Boston-based private equity firm that he founded. His job was to identify and invest in start-up companies, such as Staples and Domino’s Pizza.
But another big part of what he did was to invest in distressed companies, turn them around and make them profitable. This involved rebuilding management teams, improving company processes, identifying new products and markets, fixing balance sheets, and implementing other strategic changes to unlock value in these troubled companies.
One of Mr. Romney’s most notable turnaround situations was the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games. In 1999, he was asked to take over as president and CEO of the Games, which was in the midst of a bribery scandal and on the verge of financial collapse. He reorganized the management team, brought back disgruntled corporate sponsors, balanced the budget, and restored public confidence in the organization.
Why is his turnaround experience important in this presidential race? Today, there is no greater turnaround situation than fixing the federal government. The to-do list is extensive: reduce debt, balance the budget, fix entitlement programs, reform cumbersome tax codes and regulations, lower the costs of doing business for American companies, and open up markets for our goods and services around the world.
In the private sector, Mr. Romney’s goal was to increase shareholder value. While the federal government is not a publicly held corporation, he brings a real world business approach to Washington that is badly needed to get the country’s fiscal house in order and improve the value of government programs as measured by their cost and effectiveness.
But the toughest task will be coming up with bold ideas to revitalize an economy on the brink of another recession. Economic challenges in the US, weak global GDP growth and sovereign debt issues in the euro zone have escalated the importance of electing a president who understands the language of business and the global economy.
In this realm, Mr. Romney has the credibility and poise to lead as few others do because he has worked directly with small and large businesses and their management teams across diverse industries throughout the world.
As he stated during the recent Republican presidential debate in Tampa, Florida, “The American people create jobs, not government.”
Having put capital at risk, both his own and that of his investors, he knows firsthand the obstacles and pressures that businesses face in a global economy and how government can be a partner, not an adversary, in helping America compete.
Mr. Romney spent most of his career in the trenches of business, but he is also battle-tested in government. In 2002 he was elected governor of Massachusetts at a time when the state faced tremendous fiscal challenges. Despite taking office when there were just 23 Republicans in the 160 member House of Representatives and six Republicans in the 40 member Senate, he successfully restructured government programs, consolidated state services, reduced wasteful spending, and otherwise closed a $3 billion budget shortfall without raising taxes or borrowing from Wall Street.
What makes Mr. Romney most appealing as a candidate in a general election, however, is his ability to attract independent voters, which will be a key voting bloc in swing states.
As a Republican in Massachusetts, his election as governor was not a foregone conclusion. He defeated his Democratic opponent in one of the most liberal states in the country where Republicans comprised just 13% of voters. The bulk of voters (49%) were independents.
Mr. Romney has proven that he can appeal to a broad cross section of voters. Independents are especially tired of the business as usual polarization between Republicans and Democrats in Washington. Without the support of these more moderate voters, the Republican Party cannot expect to win the White House in 2012.
There is no perfect GOP candidate who will satisfy all Republicans. The challenge for the Republican Party is to see the forest for the trees. At a time when jobs and the economy will be the two overriding issues among voters, the focus in this presidential election will be who is best qualified to turn America around and get the economy back on track. That candidate is Mitt Romney.
John B. Stimpson served as an aide to former Massachusetts Governor William F. Weld. He lives in New York City.