Of President Obama’s stated goals for the taxpayers’ investment in General Motors—“To get G.M. back on its feet, take a hands-off approach and get out quickly”—the middle one is likely to work against those at either end. The government can’t hope to fix G.M. and sell it off without getting under the hood. Over decades now of restructuring plans at the company, two things have demonstrably not helped get much done: Money and time. The government can’t simply give more of each to the automaker. What’s needed is forceful, even ruthless, leadership to insist on the changes that everyone—the managers, the union leadership, the dealers, everyone—has known were necessary for about 20 years now.
Fritz Henderson, GM’s CEO, has earned a reputation as an able guy who understands the business and the company he grew up in. But without someone above him bringing the hammer down—repeatedly—he’s going to have the same problem busting through the culture that frustrated his worthy predecessors, like Jack Smith. And if the government is really going to attempt to stand back, rather than insist on a particular direction, it’s likely only to complicate Henderson’s job by allowing him to be buffeted by all sorts of political cross-pressures. Already, according to The Washington Post, John Dingell has written Henderson to complain about plans to close the Willow Run Transmission Plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where roughly 1200 workers build four- and six-speed transmissions for rear-wheel-drive vehicles (half the workers will be transferred to a similar plant in Toledo).
Here’s a modest proposal to drive things along: Obama should install Mitt Romney as GM’s chairman. Romney grew up outside Detroit and around cars; his father, George W. Romney, saved American Motors from collapse in the 1950s—by killing failing brands and focusing on compact cars! George Romney successfully took on the Big Three with a “dinosaur fighter” strategy. The son would bring to GM that legacy, the turnaround expertise and credentials he developed at Bain & Company, and the outsider’s eye that GM desperately needs. He would also usefully jack up even further the stakes and the drama of the undertaking.
And he would create a political firewall for the turnaround. An alliance with Romney to save GM would give Obama and Henderson the protection they need to move briskly to shrink the company. Why would Romney do it? Maybe because the chance to renew an American icon, preserve America’s manufacturing capacity, and save tens of thousands of jobs would mean something to him. Maybe because it would give him a platform to demonstrate what an effective leader he can be. Maybe because, along the way, it would allow him to save the Republican Party by proving that it stands for something besides…whatever it is that it stands for right now.
“I’m a son of Detroit,” Romney told Fox News Sunday. “I drive American cars. I love American cars. My heart bleeds for the people in Michigan, in Detroit, for all those auto workers.” Obama should help ease his pain.