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   Jeff Jacoby
Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

Copyright Boston Globe

Jan. 5, 2003

No inaugural address will ever give me the ideological thrill I got from Governor William Weld's in 1991. "Last fall," it began, "the people of Massachusetts voted to disenthrall themselves from the failed dogmas of big government." Weld's message of "entrepreneurial government," of "fewer rules and more results," resonated perfectly with my own libertarian-leaning conservatism, and it electrified me to hear it proclaimed in (of all places!) the Massachusetts State House.

By contrast, there were no thrills for me in Mitt Romney's labored inaugural address. Sure, he spoke of transforming "the structure of state government itself" and bluntly warned that "many nonessential programs . . . will have to be downsized or even eliminated." But he also went on about the need for government to "invest in people" -- a hackneyed Democratic euphemism -- and went out of his way to praise "the thousands upon thousands of public servants" who work in state and local government -- hardly the message to excite a slash-the-bureaucracy conservative like me.

And yet instead of bracing for disappointment, I find myself encouraged as Romney's term begins -- not despite the fact that he is no Bill Weld, but because of it.

For the revolution Weld promised in 1991 never came to pass, in large part because he didn't take his promise seriously. Weld didn't take much of anything seriously, the job of governor included. For diving fully clothed into rivers there was no one better, but overhauling state government would have required more work than Weld was interested in doing. When he walked off the job in 1997, state government was more bloated than ever. Little had been reformed and the "failed dogmas" he had sworn to uproot were as entrenched as they had been on the day he took the oath.

Romney seems cut from different cloth. My intuition is that he takes his words and his commitments far more seriously -- that when he talks about changing "the structure of state government itself," he is not being provocative or scratching a philosophical itch, but laying out an mission he intends to complete.

I don't know whether Romney can articulate a coherent philosophy of government, but he clearly has a strong ethic of obligation and personal service. "I will do my job," he said in his inaugural address. I'm inclined to believe him.

The new governor comes to office with a mandate for change, and his election in the teeth of the state's overwhelmingly Democratic establishment only strengthens his hand. It confers on him a moral and political authority no one else in Massachusetts government has -- the authority to lead the state out of its budget crisis by focusing on one key question: Which of the state's programs and activities are essential, and which can be dispensed with?

That is a question many would rather not confront. On the morning of Romney's inaugural, I heard from a reader upset by my suggestion in that day's column that state-owned golf courses and skating rinks ought to be auctioned off. "Ice skating and golf," I'd written, "are not essential human needs."

To which my correspondent retorted that only someone who belongs "to private clubs that most of us cannot afford" could be heartless enough to write such a thing, and that it might thaw my cold heart to visit the MDC's Daly Rink in Brighton "and see the delight on children's faces."

Multiply her pique by the $3 billion in savings Romney now says must be found before the next fiscal year, and it is clear that Massachusetts is in for a wrenching and angry time. For every threatened program, benefit, and line item, there will be a passionate and vocal constituency ready to go to war. More than anyone else, the governor will bear the brunt of their anger. But he will also draw most of the blame if the crisis isn't solved.

Even to a shrink-the-government conservative like me, it is plain that $3 billion cannot come out of the state budget without causing a considerable amount of private hardship and anxiety. That isn't an argument for doing nothing; the government cannot spend money it doesn't have and it isn't the state's job to lighten every burden and soothe every pain. It is an argument for increased private activity -- for more charity, more volunteer work, more acts of compassion and decency to help fill the gaps the budget cuts will leave behind.

Which makes it especially admirable that Romney -- by all accounts a religious and deeply charitable man -- began his term as governor by showing kindness to strangers, serving breakfast at a homeless shelter and coaching a ball game at a Dorchester boys and girls club. That he made it a priority to model that kind of behavior on his inauguration day says something about his values. The coming budget storm will be easier to weather, and Massachusetts will become a better place, if that behavior and those values become habitual -- not just for the new governor, but for us all.

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