Mitt Romney Didn't Flip-Flop on the Auto Bailout (This Time)

Democrats have leapt to criticize the Republican's latest statement on Detroit, but he doesn't seem to have changed his mind.


Democrats are crowing that Mitt Romney has again changed his mind about how he would have handled the Detroit bailout. But there's a problem with that claim: Although Romney's view seems to have evolved in the past, his latest statement isn't really a change at all.

First, a little history. Back in April, Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom made headlines for an audacious claim about his boss' view on bailout out Detroit. Fehnrstrom's claim, in short, was that Mitt Romney proposed in November 2008 that the auto companies go through a managed bankruptcy and cut costs, and that the firms had gone on to do just that.

There was a problem with that argument: It left out the bailout of the companies, which Romney had steadfastly opposed -- most famously in the same op-ed where he proposed managed bankruptcy, which was headlined "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." Such a bankruptcy would have required funding, and all those involved say that there was no private money to do that -- in the throes of economic collapse, even deep-pocketed investors were unwilling to get involved. As a result, the government stepped in with a bailout that funded the bankruptcy. Three and a half years later, General Motors is on the mend.

In April, after Fehrnstrom's remark, I rounded up all of his major statements on the auto bailout. One that sticks out is Romney's May 2009 statement that GM should have first gone through a bankruptcy, after which "the government could have helped with warranty guarantees and so forth, with debtor possession financing."

Now to the present. Speaking to the Detroit News, the Republican presidential candidate said: "If they needed help coming out of bankruptcy and government support, that was fine, but I was not in favor of the government writing billions of dollars in checks prior to them going into bankruptcy."

It's fairly clear that Romney has been saying for three years that he would have favored government guarantees after a managed bankruptcy, and that he opposed a bailout. That doesn't explain the central question of how he would have handled funding for the bankruptcy, but it's unfair to call Romney's claim a flip-flop -- just as it was silly for Fehrnstrom to claim that Obama was just following Romney's advice.

Romney has struggled to define and defend his position on carmakers for years. The idea of "letting Detroit go bankrupt" is, unsurprisingly, deeply unpopular in his native state. One wonders why Romney keeps talking to Michigan newspapers about the matter: Not only has he been unable to explain away his November 2008 op-ed, it seems extremely unlikely that he'll win the state in November 2012, while his tortured explanations only give Democrats fodder. But perhaps the oddest part of his Detroit News interview was actually this:

Republican Mitt Romney believes President Barack Obama is holding on to the government's stake in General Motors to avoid an embarrassing financial loss before the election, and says he'd sell the stock quickly if he wins the White House....

"The president is delaying the sale of the shares to try and avoid the story that the taxpayer took another loss. I would get the company independent from government and run for the interests of the consumer and the enterprise and its workers -- not for the political considerations of government officials."

If it's so that the government would take a big loss on GM shares, and that Romney would happily host a firesale of them, he's saying that as president he'd prioritize the financial interests of General Motors, its employees, and its customers over the interests of the taxpayer. That's a statement that seems to play right into the hands of President Obama's argument about Bain Capital, which is that the interests Romney served in private equity, while perfectly defensible for a private citizen, are far removed from the public interest that the president of the United States must serve.