GWEN IFILL: Tonight's program focuses on Mitt Romney's story. And that's our focus, too.
We begin with a look at one lasting achievement of his single term as governor of Massachusetts. I traveled to the Bay State earlier this month to explore that.
MITT ROMNEY: Thank you. Thank you.
Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, I want to express special appreciation for the opportunity I will have to serve with you.
GWEN IFILL: On the day Mitt Romney became governor of Massachusetts, he was a brand-new thing, a businessman, the guy who saved the Olympics, a turnaround artist. What he'd never been, someone who held the reins of government.
MITT ROMNEY: I received two titles today, governor and public servant.
GWEN IFILL: In 2002, as the state sank into debt, former state party Chairwoman Kerry Healey was dispatched to Utah to recruit Romney while he was there running the Winter Olympics.
KERRY HEALEY (R), Former Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor: I was receiving literally hundreds of e-mails and phone calls from people around the state saying, go get Mitt Romney. He's the person who can save the state.
MITT ROMNEY: Thank you.
KWAME HOLMAN: Spending more than $6 million of his own money, Romney went on to win the election with 50 percent of the vote, in part by sweeping the independent vote.
Many of the Democrats who'd run the legislature for decades were hard-bitten deal makers who'd spent their careers at the statehouse on Beacon Hill.
MAN: His excellency, the governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GWEN IFILL: And like many newcomers to politics, the new Republican governor pledged collaboration. It was easier said than done.
Michael Widmer was there. He's the president of the nonpartisan Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.
MICHAEL WIDMER, Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation: The legislative leaders were never particularly fond of Governor Romney, unlike some other Republican governors.
Governor Romney brought in a mind-set of -- that he was going to be the CEO as governor. And it's a very strong legislature here and, of course, very heavily Democrat as well. And so I think there wasn't an appreciation on the part of the Romney administration that this was an equal branch of government.
And they tried to centralize a lot of the control, the administration did, with a bureaucracy and dealing with a legislature and so forth. So, that didn't sit well.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
KERRY HEALEY: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: Kerry Healey, Romney's lieutenant governor, remembers it differently.
KERRY HEALEY: One of the things that Governor Romney did every week was invite the head of the Senate and the speaker of the House to come and meet with him privately, to talk about the legislation that they cared about, the legislation that he cared about, what was going on in the state, any kind of big decisions that he would be taking that week.
And while they didn't always agree, and sometimes they perhaps didn't even attend, but they were always invited. The door was always open.
GWEN IFILL: When Mitt Romney became governor of this deep blue state in 2003, there was no way to know that his signature accomplishment four years later would be the one issue his campaign now seeks to downplay, the passage of sweeping universal health care reform.
TIM MURPHY, Former Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services: It was a big accomplishment for everybody.
GWEN IFILL: Tim Murphy, a former investment banker who joined Romney as a top health care adviser, was one of those who saw the promise in putting the Republican governor's stamp on the issue.
TIM MURPHY: There were tons of doubters about why we were even interested in doing health care in Massachusetts. You know, we didn't have the bona fides. Republicans don't care about this issue. Mitt Romney hasn't been involved in the wars of health care reform in the past 30 years here in Massachusetts.
GWEN IFILL: State Senator Richard Moore, who runs the Health Care Financing Committee, was among the Democrats who chafed at the new governor's private sector ways.
RICHARD MOORE (D-Mass.): He was a businessman who had not been part of the Beacon Hill process. He'd run against Beacon Hill, really.
GWEN IFILL: Partisan difference was only part of the problem. Democrats had worked with Republicans before. Republican William Weld, who served as governor in the 1990s, could slap backs with the best of them.
By 2008, he'd crossed party lines to endorse Barack Obama. Romney wasn't that kind of Republican. Moore remembers the first time he was invited to Romney's office.
RICHARD MOORE: I said to him, I said, you know, Governor, that this is the first time I have been in here other than for a photo since Bill Weld was governor to do a substantive policy discussion. I said the difference was, he served Heineken.
RICHARD MOORE: And he had -- and Weld had a cooler of Heineken in his office.
And Romney got all tense and he said, you know, he said, well, we don't have any liquor in here. He said, I do have a case of Yoo-hoo chocolate drink if you want something.
GWEN IFILL: Romney, a practicing Mormon, doesn't drink. So he found other ways to build the relationships he would need to tackle a budget crisis and, in fixing health care, make history.
TIM MURPHY: We knew we needed to work with the legislature, but with power concentrated so much, we only really had to spend our time and focus on our time on a handful of people.
So if a state representative from town X or city Y didn't like the fact that the governor didn't go and hang out with them after work or didn't get invited into the governor's office, you know, I don't know really what to say about that.
GWEN IFILL: But when it came to health care, Romney and the Democrats had more in common. They agreed that health care costs were a drain on the state economy.
KERRY HEALEY: There were more and more people who were walking into hospitals who didn't have health care coverage, and that was costing hospitals, taxpayers and insurers a lot of money.
And so he was looking for a solution to this problem, one that met human needs and one that met the economic needs of the state.
MICHAEL WIDMER: The Democratic leadership said, we understand he's going to use this, but we believe in it.
MITT ROMNEY: This is a politician's dream, you got to admit.
GWEN IFILL: By 2006, when Romney signed the Bay State's universal health care law at an elaborate Faneuil Hall ceremony, he was surrounded by Democratic lawmakers. Also by his side: Senator Ted Kennedy.
MAN: It was an odd couple if you will, Kennedy and Romney.
GWEN IFILL: Twelve years earlier, Kennedy, the liberal Democrat, had turned aside a strong ROMNEY challenge. They debated in this same hall.
MITT ROMNEY: This for me feels a bit like the Titanic returning to visit the iceberg.
GWEN IFILL: Universal health care was Kennedy's passion, and he worked to break down some of the walls between Romney and the statehouse Democrats.
The compromise solution reached after years of back and forth requires individuals to be insured, penalizes employers who do not offer coverage, allows anyone earning $29,000 or less to purchase insurance from a state-subsidized pool. If that sounds familiar, it's because those features are also contained in the federal law.
MICHAEL WIDMER: One could make an argument that there is a difference between doing it in one state, and then having the imposition federally, and there's probably some truth to that. But it is really a stretch, in the sense that the two bedrock pieces of Massachusetts health reform, both advanced by Governor Romney, were the individual mandate and the exchanges, and those are the two bedrock pieces of federal health reform.
GWEN IFILL: In 2007, Romney agreed with that.
MITT ROMNEY: But those who follow the plan that we pursued will find it's the best path, and we will end up with a nation that has taken a mandate approach.
MICHAEL WIDMER: He was going around the country beginning his campaign for presidency. It was recognized that he was seeing this potentially as a signal achievement for his future run for the presidency.
GWEN IFILL: But Romney's health care position has since evolved, and it has caused him a problem or two, even with his new running mate.
WOMAN: Do you believe the Massachusetts' health care reform system...
REP. PAUL RYAN (R-Wi.), Vice Presidential Candidate: Yes.
QUESTION: ... works, a system that Governor Romney...
REP. PAUL RYAN: Well, no. Actually, I'm not a fan of the system.
This idea of having the government being the sole -- single regulator of health insurance, defining what kind of health insurance you can have, and then an individual mandate, it is a fatal conceit, and these kinds of systems, as we are now seeing in Massachusetts, are unsustainable.
GWEN IFILL: Tim Murphy, a principal author of the Massachusetts plan, says the legislation was always considered a model for other states, but not one for the federal government.
TIM MURPHY: The way in which we deliver health care and finance health care in Massachusetts is distinctly different than the way in which you do it in California.
And so I think that Mitt has laid out what has been kind of broadly defined as kind of a federalism argument, like, let states go and figure their own things out. And I think in some ways that gets misconstrued to be, you know, kind of more overly like a philosophy of government.
GWEN IFILL: Whatever its larger intent, six years after the Massachusetts health care law was enacted, 98 percent of the state's citizens are covered, and the legislature recently passed a follow-up plan to control costs.
But is Romney's health care record in Massachusetts a good measure of how he would govern in Washington?
MICHAEL WIDMER: I think the jury is out.
There was a political alignment and an unusual alignment of stakeholder groups and Republicans and Democrats here, so both substantively and politically, the stars were aligned here. I think other states can do it, but it's a -- it's a tall order.
GWEN IFILL: A tall order, and a key test.