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Columns
Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

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.

Veteran journalist and national Emmy Award winner Jack Lessenberry teaches at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

February 16, 2012 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry Tags: , , , ,

16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Richard Cole // Feb 17, 2012 at 9:34 am

    This comment by Steve Rattner says it all about the father of Romney-care: “He’s afraid of being perceived as a moderate.”

    Jack: You may want to book your reservations to Tampa. The way this R primary is shaping up it may be a very interesting convention. Now that Haley Barber has pooped in his own Easter basket, could it be that a brokered convention in Florida might just product Bush 3?

  • 2 Richard Cole // Feb 17, 2012 at 9:53 am

    Oops — “produce George 3.”

  • 3 David Waymire // Feb 17, 2012 at 10:07 am

    Dogma is a terrible thing. Here’s what George the Second told auto dealers earlier this year:

    “I’d do it again,” the former
    president said of his decision to bail out the auto industry. “I didn’t want there to be 21 percent unemployment.”

    Maybe Mitt and Rick have been “brainwashed?”

  • 4 Anagnorisis // Feb 17, 2012 at 11:20 am

    Mitt Romney would be pro or anti anything depending on which way the wind blows, and dismiss fallout like hosing off his dog after a harrowing 12 hours atop the family vehicle at 70 mph wind. With current communications and polling Mitt cannot afford to be a moderate for long, but he’ll change tactics according to which way the wind blows. Don’t they all?

  • 5 Chuck Fellows // Feb 17, 2012 at 11:31 am

    Romney – Lights on, nobody home.

    Santorum – No lights, no home.

  • 6 James Brazier // Feb 17, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    Romeny’s position on the rescue package for the auto industry certainly reflects his days at Bain Capital. Depiction of similar characters in film has been done in “other People’s Money” and “Wall Street.” But his chances inthe Feb. 28 primary for the GOP in Michigan may turn on the selective information of attack ads and candidate promotion. Much of what will occur in the primary could also rely on who votes in the GOP primary.

    I expect that Romeny and Santorum will vie closely for the win in the primary. Santorum could do himself favors by publicizing his record of being against RTW and attacking for Romney for opposing the auto industry rescue.

    Snyder’s support for Romenywill mean very little in the race. It just informs us who Snyder is voting for in the primary.

  • 7 Beth Ryan // Feb 22, 2012 at 6:25 pm

    Thoughtful piece– thank you

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