Portraying himself as a frugal turnaround expert who helped launch the Staples office supply chain, Mitt Romney told a New Hampshire audience Thursday night that he was uniquely qualified to whittle down the nation's budget deficit and improve efficiency across government.
Before a crowd of more than a 150 people (including many students from nearby Exeter Academy), Romney touched on his experiences at Bain Capital (the Boston private equity firm that he helped found), the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic games, and as governor of Massachusetts: "I've learned the difference, time and again, between the private sector in which you have to balance your budget and be responsible, and the governmental sector where they print money, borrow money and spend what they don't have," he said.
Romney's remarks here served as a preview of a policy speech on spending cuts that he will deliver Friday in Washington to the conservative political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity.
Setting out some of the initiatives that his staff said he would explain in more detail Friday, Romney said if elected he would reduce federal spending to 20% of the nation's Gross Domestic Product – a target he said amounted to a cut of $500 billion.
He offered just a few examples of how he would achieve that goal. Among them: repealing Obama's health care plan (which he said would slice $90 billion from the budget by 2016), cuts to Amtrak and foreign aid for countries "that can take of themselves." He also repeated his pledge to shrink the federal work force by 10%, which he said could be achieved through attrition.
In making the case for government program cuts, Romney said Republicans need to "take the high ground."
"There are some who say – 'when you talk about fiscal responsibility and cutting a program, you're showing that you are heartless,'" Romney said. "We have to say – No, no, no – you have to understand, we have a moral responsibility not to spend more than we take in. We have a moral responsibility not to pass on to our kids the spending of our generation."
Speaking from notes that appeared to have been ripped from a yellow legal pad (which he said he had written "in the automobile"), Romney strayed somewhat from his standard stump speech and asked the audience to forgive him if he stumbled "around a bit" because he had trouble reading his own handwriting.
In what appeared to be an effort to explain his private sector experience in a more understandable way to voters, he offered some new details about his role in the early days of the Staples chain, one of the startup businesses that Bain Capital invested in during the mid-1980s.
Romney recalled that back when "we were just getting started," Staples set up its corporate headquarters in the back of an abandoned food warehouse. "The furniture was all used," he said, reminiscing about the firm's second-hand, naugahyde chairs: "They were so deep you almost had to be an athlete to get out of them once you sat down in one of them. That's how we spent money. Our rent was $2 dollars a square foot."
"Why were we so frugal with our money? Because we wanted to spend every dollar to build a product and get customers to come and to build an enterprise to hire people and provide a return to those who invested."
Romney contrasted that experience with Staples – which he said was started with some $5 to $10 million in investments from varied sources – with the Obama administration's decision to loan more than $500 million to Solyndra, a solar company that subsequently went bankrupt.
Earlier this week, Americans for Prosperity, a group tied to the Koch brothers, launched a new $2.4 million ad campaign attacking the Obama administration for "risking billions of taxpayer dollars" through loans to Solyndra.