BOSTON — When Mitt Romney decided to tackle a universal healthcare system for Massachusetts, he wasn't motivated by a campaign promise or a heart-wrenching story. He was inspired instead by an intriguing set of numbers.
During his first two years as governor of Massachusetts, Romney had spent much of his time slashing the state's budget deficit, a tedious exercise that left him with little flexibility. With his political legacy at stake and a presidential campaign looming, he zeroed in on healthcare, noting that it was consuming a third of the state's $23-billion budget, with $1 billion directed each year to cover the costs for 460,000 state residents who were uninsured.
The Harvard Business School graduate and onetime consultant dove into the data with his aides — quickly mastering the makeup of the state's uninsured and dispatching his staff to solicit ideas from a broad spectrum of healthcare advocates.
Over that year, he was a frequent visitor to the policy shop, popping up a back staircase above his offices to the team's "clubhouse," where he would noodle around in the latest Excel spreadsheet to explore its findings. After many months, he pushed through a proposal — with crucial help from U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Massachusetts state lawmakers — that became, for a time, his signature achievement in Massachusetts.
The decision-making process, aides say, was classic Romney: hyperanalytical, dispassionate and deliberate — traits honed in law school and over many years as a consultant and head of the private equity firm Bain Capital. As the plan took shape, chief Romney healthcare advisor Tim Murphy said, the governor would often "come at you four different ways," pressure-testing whether the facts presented were fully supported.
"There's an efficiency to how he thinks. He does his homework; he understands what the probative questions are to ask, and he asks them based on his own research, his understanding of what is important," Murphy said during a recent interview in Boston.
Romney's style carries the imprint of his business school training, the Socratic method he learned in law school and during his many years weighing investment risks at Bain Capital.
At each endeavor — from Bain to the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics to the governor's office — Romney hewed to a core Harvard Business School maxim: assembling teams with varied professional backgrounds to force internal robust debate.
When he interviewed Beth Myers, an attorney who had left politics to be a stay-at-home mom, they talked at length about the last big project she had run: the Christmas market at her church. He hired her a short time later as his chief of staff. Romney's top strategist on his presidential campaign, Stuart Stevens, is famous for his digressions into discussions of obscure Russian authors, potential lunar colonies and the equipment needed to ski the North Pole.
Romney's longtime partner Bob White said Romney sought colleagues who were confident enough to challenge his point of view. Former employees describe his interviews as rigorous tests of their logic and reasoning. White, who was recruited by Romney to help him run Bain Capital, recalls their first interview: Romney asking him to reason out logic questions like the annual demand for mattresses.
Romney's interview questions were inflected with the style of the consulting world: "He wanted to see how you thought," White said.
Many of Romney's current and former aides, like Jane Edmonds, who served as Massachusetts secretary of workforce development, said Romney's decision-making pushed his deputies to over-prepare. "He's completely zeroed in on what you're saying. He's listening so hard that you can fully expect that you're going to be asked granular follow-up questions," she said.
The consequences of not doing so were clear. One campaign aide recalled the candidate leveling an icy stare when he was caught off guard by a Romney question.
If caught without an answer during a Romney briefing, Edmonds said, "You better say [you don't know] real fast — that would be my best advice. For gosh sakes, don't make up one."
Early in her days in the governor's office, Myers said, she learned to come to meetings not only with both sides of the argument, but with both sides "equally well argued." That lesson was learned when Romney was deciding whether to go forward with the expansion of a train line.
The staff was unanimous in its approval, and when Romney asked to hear the other side, Myers told him flatly that they had the right answer. Romney told her to "come back with someone who will argue as vigorously for the other side as you just did for this one," Myers recalled.
"It is very important to Mitt that he gets good data, that he gets objective data, and when he gets it, that there's not a thumb on the scale," she said.