Not So Pure Michigan
February 17, 2012
DETROIT — Mitt Romney always loved cars. He liked to sit on the seat next to his older sister and pretend to drive when he was four years old. Soon afterwards, “we found out he could identify any car by glancing at the quarter-panel,” his older brother, G. Scott Romney, told me five years ago during Mitt’s first run for president.
Today, the presidential candidate still proclaims his love for “not any cars, American cars,” as he said in a Valentine’s Day column in The Detroit News. Yet ironically, his position on cars could doom his candidacy, at least in Michigan, where he was born in 1947 to a father who would become head of the former American Motors Co.
For although he likes to speak lovingly of “chrome and fins and roaring motors,” when the domestic auto industry was on the point of death a little over three years ago Romney would have let it die.
In November 2008, the month President Obama was elected, a now-infamous column was published in The New York Times under Romney’s name. The headline said: “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”
That was not popular in Michigan then, and is less so now that the bailout and the “soft” bankruptcies that followed turned out to be a success. The nonprofit Center for Automotive Research estimated up to three million jobs might disappear if the companies failed.
Today, Chrysler, General Motors and Ford are all profitable, and the second two are making billions. They are adding workers again, and morale is on the rise.
Yet even so, Romney still says the bailout was a bad idea: “Crony capitalism on a grand scale,” he says.
He paints a lurid picture of the president selling out to the “union boss-controlled trust fund,” and adds, “I believe that without his [President Obama’s] intervention things would be better.”
Not surprisingly, that view has few supporters in the auto industry. Steven Rattner, the head of the Obama task force that oversaw the reorganization of Chrysler and GM, denounced the former Massachusetts governor in scathing terms.
Interviewed after the candidate’s op-ed appeared, Rattner called his claims “ridiculous,” and reaffirmed that “those companies would have closed their doors and liquidated,’” without the bailout.
Thanks in part to the financial turmoil that fall, the “auto czar” says there was simply no private cash available. The candidate’s position, argues Rattner, himself a Wall Street financier with a background that includes stints at Lehman Brothers and Morgan Stanley, is designed to pander to the Tea Party right.
“He’s afraid of being perceived as a moderate,” he adds.
The way Romney tells it, he actually ought to deserve more credit than Obama for the industry’s survival. He now says that he was always in favor of the sort of “managed bankruptcy” that Chrysler and GM eventually went through.
“The course I recommended was originally followed,” he says of the bankruptcies. The candidate says the problem is that before that, “the federal government swept in with a $85 billion sweetheart deal disguised as a rescue plan,” something he hints was a plot to reward “Obama’s union allies on the taxpayer’s dime.”
Various experts have pointed out that Romney’s column is inaccurate. The UAW did not, for example, get anything like the terms it first asked for. And while the column excoriates President Obama, there is no mention whatsoever of the presumably evil genius who began the sellout of the taxpayers, who first gave the automakers billions of taxpayer bailout dollars.
That would be, naturally, one President George W. Bush.
Nobody yet knows whether Romney’s tough stance on the bailout will win over the conservatives who are expected to dominate Michigan primary voting February 28. Earlier this week, the GOP establishment was shocked by polls showing Romney, who won the Michigan primary easily in 2008, badly trailing Rick Santorum, a virtual unknown in the state just a month ago.
The native son clearly needs to do something.
Yet if his anti-bailout stance manages to win him the primary and, ultimately, the nomination, it might prove a poison pill.
Michigan Democrats have already been denouncing Romney’s “betrayal” of the industry. Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm said it was a case of “stabbing us in the back.”
Winning Michigan in the presidential election might, in any event, be a long shot for Romney. The last time any Republican carried it in a presidential race was 1988, when George H.W. Bush beat the hapless Michael Dukakis.
But being perceived as anti-auto could be a serious handicap for Romney in Toledo and elsewhere in northern Ohio, where autos are a big part of the economy. No Republican has ever been elected without carrying Ohio, and any nominee has to take back the state to have any prayer of upsetting the incumbent.
Democrats have been fairly restrained so far, but it is certain that their fall campaign will feature a massive ad campaign focused on Republicans’ willingness to let the auto industry go under.
When Mitt Romney was a student at Brigham Young University in Utah, other young men his age were fighting in Vietnam, where a famous saying was, “we had to burn the village in order to save it.”
In the end, it would be ironic, indeed, if the son of a famous auto executive ended up dooming his candidacy by the measures he took to win the nomination. Including, that is, attacking the policies that saved the signature industry — and the economy — of his native state.