Romney to Auto Industry: Glad You're Not Dead—Really

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His 2008 call to 'let Detroit go bankrupt' put him on the defensive, and his more recent attempts to walk it back have only undermined him further.

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Mitt Romney would like you to know that he really, really, really likes cars. Loves them, in fact. Loves cars, loves American cars, loves the auto industry. "I want to see it thrive and grow," he says. "I'm delighted it is profitable."

The guy could hardly be expected to campaign across Michigan using the slogan "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," the headline on a November 2008 opinion piece he wrote in The New York Times. But his reconciliation tour through his home state in advance of its Feb. 28 primary, and his Detroit News piece calling President Obama's aid to General Motors and Chrysler "crony capitalism on a grand scale," are not sending the ideal campaign message.

The more Romney talks and writes about his stand on the 2008 and 2009 bailouts, the more confusion he creates -- and the more fodder he creates for critics such as the Democratic National Committee, which has no shortage of material to circulate these days. "The piece rivals Cirque du Soleil in its display of contortions," The Economist said of Romney's Detroit News op-ed. "One wonders if the exhausted Romney can remember at the end of the day what he actually believes," columnist Tom Walsh wrote in the Detroit Free Press after Romney met with the editorial board.

The DNC also circulated a CNBC story featuring an interview with AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson and a preview of a letter he wrote to be published in the Detroit News on Friday. Jackson demolishes every point of Romney's argument and further says Romney would have acted just as George W. Bush and Obama did had he been president at the time. To top it off, the DNC created a video contrasting Romney's "let them eat bankruptcy" with GM's high profits and Obama's "don't bet against America."

A few observations about Romney's evolving argument: He doesn't often, if ever, note that it was a Republican president, Bush, who decided he had to bail out the two companies to prevent the death of the U.S. auto industry and 20 percent unemployment. He doesn't acknowledge that the private bridge loan he recommended, to carry the companies through a managed bankruptcy, was a virtual impossibility during a financial panic with the credit market in a deep freeze. He wrote in 2008 as if the government would hand out billions with no strings, and even now does not acknowledge the painful conditions Obama's team imposed on companies, unions and shareholders.

Romney, we should point out, is not the only Republican presidential candidate who opposed the government bailout. Arch-rival Rick Santorum also was and is a naysayer. But Romney is the only candidate who grew up in the heart of auto country, with a dad who headed American Motors Corp. He's the only one who announced his 2008 candidacy at the Henry Ford Museum, surrounded by classic cars. And he's the only one who has put his controversial ideas into writing in two newspapers.

Right now Romney is facing a reckoning in Michigan against Santorum. But that's an easy fight compared to the one looming this fall if he wins the GOP nomination and has to vie with Obama for the hearts, minds and votes of Michigan.

Image: Carlos Osorio / Associated Press

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Jill Lawrence is a national correspondent at National Journal. She was previously a columnist at Politics Daily, national political correspondent at USA Today and national political writer at the Associated Press.

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