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BRIAN MCGRORY

Indelicate fits of Mitt

Mark this week as the precise point when Mitt Romney leaped headlong into the sewer of Massachusetts politics. And like the many officials who already reside there, he probably lacks the wherewithal to ever pull himself out.

Ah, what could have been, what should have been: Mitt as the white knight, the uber manager riding up Beacon Hill surrounded by some of the most talented aides that any governor has ever compiled, all in the name of reform.

He was to be apolitical. He was supposed to operate miles above the fray. He would take on the tough issues, the sacred cows, that the Legislature never had the brains or stomach to address. And he would do it with contagious dignity.

Instead we end up with this: Mitt the sniper; Mitt the petulant fit-thrower; Mitt devoting himself to shallow issues for political gain while the state crumbles around him.

And this: Mitt actually depressing the political culture that voters had elected him to elevate. Who knew it could get any lower than where it had already been?

This week, it all reached its irreversible nadir when a Romney aide accused Democratic officials of lacking the governor's same patriotic devotion to veterans.

Most Democrats want to name the main stretch of the Big Dig the Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Tunnel, after the former US House speaker. Romney wants to name it the Liberty Tunnel, as in, could someone please cut the crust off my Wonderbread?

When a legislative panel voted in favor of Tip this week, Romney had himself a tantrum. His spokeswoman, Shawn Feddeman, seethed: "Over the last month, Governor Romney has attended a funeral a week for servicemen killed . . . in Iraq. And he feels very strongly we should honor the men and women who have sacrificed for our nation by naming the I-93 tunnel Liberty."

So if you disagree with Mitt on how a tunnel should be named, you're anti-veteran, anti-American, anti-apple pie.

Sound familiar? The ever-unctuous Ari Fleischer tried the same pathetic tack when he used to stand in the White House briefing room every day accusing but rarely informing. Last anyone checked, patriotism wasn't a partisan emotion.

Up on Beacon Hill, the damage is devastating. Forget that Romney hasn't been in office for the vast bulk of the Big Dig construction, and thus has little standing to name it. Forget, too, that his devotion to veterans seems newfound; Initially, he wanted to hold an Internet naming contest for the tunnels.

And forget, too, the merits. Liberty is a stultifyingly vanilla name, and what with the bell and the statue, a concept pretty well covered. O'Neill, on the other hand, was an unusually generous and humble public figure who came to embody the political ideals of a huge swath of the state's population.

What riles legislators is the petty, personal attack, which follows less than two weeks after Romney apologized for a Feddeman crack about Ted Kennedy. By the way, don't blame the messenger; she takes her orders from above.

There now exists a level of alienation between the parties and branches on Beacon Hill that longtime State House observers have never seen. The idea of Romney and the Legislature working together toward education or health care reform, or even balancing next year's budget, now seems completely ludicrous.

What should rile the citizenry are the dashed opportunities. Romney truly was this state's best political hope in a long, long time. He had no unholy alliances. He had none of the typical constraints of a lifetime politician. He owed no unseemly debts. He had only brains, willingness, and potential.

Romney wasn't elected to name-call or name tunnels. He was supposed to soar over the muck, not to throw it. He was expected to address big issues, not obsess over superficial ones.

But nearly a year in, the governor's most notable accomplishment is making the Legislature appear good by comparison -- a breathtaking feat, but not exactly what Massachusetts needs.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

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