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Send Mitt Romney to Puerto Rico

The island needs an adviser to navigate Washington, Wall Street, and an uncertain future. He’s perfect.

Photo by Mike Segar/Reuters
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks to members of the media at the main clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, on Nov. 19.
Mike Segar/Reuters

Puerto Rico faces a monumental rebuilding task following Hurricanes Maria and Irma, one that could amount to an existential struggle. Several weeks after landfall, only 15 percent of the island’s population has electricity. Because it’s a territory, Puerto Rico lacks the capacity to print its own currency or raise taxes significantly, and it lacks real representation in Washington. As a result, neither the executive branch nor the legislative branch—in particular, this executive branch and this legislative branch—can be expected to approach its recovery with any urgency.

Puerto Rico was already coping with serious questions about its future before the hurricane hit. The island’s economy never recovered from the Great Recession, fiscal problems continued to mount, and the territory, laboring under an unpayable $73 billion debt load, effectively filed for bankruptcy in May. Many residents have simply stopped believing in the future. Between 2010 and 2015 alone, Puerto Rico lost 6.6 percent of its population. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have moved to Florida, New York, or other states. The birth rate has fallen sharply; between 2010 and 2015, the number of babies born in island fell 26 percent. The pace of decline is likely to accelerate in the wake of Irma and Maria’s devastation, which only exacerbates the structural financial problems.

The task of imagining a future for Puerto Rico is enormously complex. It has to get the island’s infrastructure back on its feet, make sure the functioning businesses (tourism, pharmaceutical factories) remain functioning, and work out viable long-term financial arrangements with its many creditors. At the same time, it has to ensure that infrastructure is more resilient to future weather events and plan for a future that will look fundamentally different: fewer schools and hospitals, fewer people, perhaps fewer towns. It’s not clear what Puerto Rico will look like in 2025, but it is clear it will look significantly different than it did in 2015.

In addition to generous recovery funds, Puerto Rico is clearly in dire need of a chief restructuring officer. Not an emergency manager with carte blanche to supplant or ignore elected officials, but an executive to advise and develop strategy. The island certainly wants the help; Gov. Ricardo Rossello has called for “unprecedented” aid. But who? Nobody in Washington is eager to step up. And the elected officials on the island don’t have the institutional or individual experience working with Wall Street, pushing legislation through Congress, or envisioning wholesale change in economic systems.

Think about the job. It requires someone who has a really good financial mind; has a long history of dealing with turning around financially troubled entities; has a basic sense of decency; speaks the language of Wall Street and has no problem telling creditors to stuff it; has led an entity the size of a small state; has shown the capacity to analyze complex systems, develop effective policies that assist all citizens, and then marshal bipartisan support to make effective changes; has sufficient personal wealth that he or she is both incorruptible and can take on the task for the low wage it offers; and won’t be tempted to use the gig as a springboard for higher office.

In short, it requires Mitt Romney.

To a degree, Romney’s public image is associated with his failed bid to unseat President Obama in 2012 when he ran a highly partisan, often disingenuous campaign. Which is a shame. Because until that time, Romney had shown himself to be one of the more competent people in American public life. And as anyone who watched the fine 2014 documentary Mitt can attest, he was a far more decent, sympathetic, and admirable person than he was a candidate. Unfortunately, in the five years since 2012, he has generally stuck to the background and avoided positions of responsibility. If he couldn’t be the CEO of the whole country, Romney apparently decided that he’d be the CEO of nothing.

Romney’s name has surfaced in Utah politics as a potential successor to Sen. Orrin Hatch. But Romney and his talents would be wasted in the do-nothing Senate, just as they would have been wasted if President Trump had appointed him to be his secretary of state. They would, however, be perfectly suited to helping Puerto Rico restructure.

Let’s review quickly. Romney had a long career as a private equity investor and executive at Bain Capital, a discipline that requires the simultaneous application of business engineering and financial engineering to a range of different industries—and a willingness to resolve huge financial problems by walking away from them or restructuring them. (Which is exactly what Puerto Rico needs.)

In the 1990s, Romney stepped in to rescue the Salt Lake City Olympics after a bribery scandal had cast a pall over the upcoming games. As sponsors and backers grew antsy, the 2002 Winter Olympics were facing a $379 million deficit. Romney acted quickly and imposed a sense of fiscal rectitude. “At meetings, board members were asked to fork over a dollar for a slice of pizza or a soda. Romney nixed five-star travel accommodations, scrapped costly segments of the ceremonies and swapped out color marketing brochures for black-and-white,” as Time noted. He then rallied both the private and public sectors, lining up new sponsors and getting a “record $342 million in direct funding from federal appropriators.” The result: “Salt Lake sold 95% of available tickets, harnessed the contributions of some 23,000 volunteers and finished with a surplus of about $100 million, much of which was funneled into a fund for facility upkeep.”

Next, Romney served as the executive of a territory somewhat larger than Puerto Rico. From 2003 to 2007, he served a single term as governor of Massachusetts. The patrician Republican was often at odds with the Democratic legislature, and his term was not exactly a period of extensive law-making and reform (he issued more than 800 vetoes). Except in one important area: health care. Working with Democrats, Romney engineered a new system of mandates, exchanges, subsidies, and requirements on insurance companies, essentially the precursor to Obamacare. After the passage of this well-designed plan aimed at improving the lot of typical citizens, Massachusetts virtually eliminated the problem of noncoverage. Alas, running against Obama in 2012 left him unable, or unwilling, to champion his most significant achievement.

It’s not clear precisely what the plan would be. But it’s pretty clear how someone like Romney would proceed: Audit the finances to get a firm grip on the situation, strike deals with creditors, line up new investors to help fund the region going forward. At the same time, enlist public and private entities to work on a plan to ensure that the scope of Puerto Rico’s operations—schools, public services, utilities—are both functional and appropriately sized. The politics of this might be messy: Romney is not particularly liked by Democrats or Republicans. And he has been antagonistic to Trump. But there’s no downside for either party to embracing a role for Romney. If he should fail, they get to blame him. And if he succeeds, he’s now too old to parlay it into a run for higher office.

Romney wasn’t a particularly good political campaigner. His instincts on the campaign trail weren’t always great. But his instincts in the boardroom are fantastic. He is able to make plans, strategize, and focus intently on execution. And he has demonstrated an ability not simply to get things done, but to do so with a sense of empathy and shared purpose. The president may not be capable of that challenge, but someone has to be.

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