Romney's Insanely Dishonest Auto Bailout Defense

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Before Hurricane Sandy hit, Mitt Romney had turned to his make-your-head-explode closing message in Ohio that Barack Obama is the one who let the auto industry go bankrupt, and Mitt Romney is the guy who wanted to save it. This is perfectly in keeping with Romney’s approach to any situation in which his opponent has a more popular position: Just say you’re for that thing, and also, possibly, that they’re not. Then you can go to the voters and say, I believe in pretty much the same stuff as Ted Kennedy or Shannon O’Brien or Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich or (now) Barack Obama but I will be taller and handsomer and more effective.

The basics of this debate are pretty clear. Mitt Romney opposed using government funds to keep General Motors and Chrysler afloat. He has managed to muddy up the issue because he has said numerous things about it, many of which contradicted each other or simply made no sense at all. (Jonathan Cohn has a nice rundown.) But if you don’t want to chase every factual rabbit down every hole, the even bigger picture is that the notion that Romney or any Republican supported a taxpayer bailout of the auto industry is totally insane.

Since I’m apparently the only person old enough to remember it, let me sit down in my rocking chair, offer you a Werther’s caramel,  and tell you all about what it was like way back in 2009. The government had already bailed out the financial industry, was proposing an $800 billion stimulus, and Republicans were running around with their hair on fire screaming about socialism. The idea of extending another bailout to an industry not as central to the entire economy as finance struck even many Democrats as an inappropriate extension of government  – numerous internal Obama advisers opposed a bailout, and I remember having a hard time making up my mind before uncomfortably deciding it was worth it.

On the right, the auto bailout was immediately decried as the most frightening thing Obama had yet attempted. Paul Ryan wrote, “we are witnessing a fundamental transformation of government's relationship with the polity and the economy.” The Weekly Standard called it “Gangster Government.” That was the general sentiment when Mitt Romney wrote his campaign book, decrying the auto bailout

In his book, Romney excoriates the bailout in the starkest terms, contending that “the rule of law was ignored in order to reward the auto workers union at General Motors.” He cites it in a list of a half -dozen examples during Obama’s first 18 months in office of what he describes as “actions that demonstrate” the administration’s “distrust in free enterprise.” On page 8 of his 325-page treatise, Romney insists that when liberals are in power, “they take action” like the bailout “that is consistent with socialism but call it by a more plausible name.” …

At another point in the book, Romney wrote: “I opposed Washington’s bailout for the industry in 2008 because it enabled GM and Chrysler to avoid the restructuring and productivity improvements essential for their success. The managed bankruptcy that I proposed ultimately occurred, but only after tens of billions of dollars of taxpayer money had been wasted, and only after sweetheart deals and paybacks for favored interest groups had been engineered with the public’s money. The question now is whether or not the administration’s heavy hand has protected political and UAW interests in such a way that the industry’s burdens persist.”

“Of course, the financial system itself must not be allowed to collapse,” he wrote, “but individual institutions that do not show the capacity to right themselves should be allowed to fail. Non-financial businesses should also be allowed to fail; if they have future prospects, bankruptcy will allow them to remerge as stronger, viable employers.” Leaving no doubt that he means the auto industry, his next line adds: “General Motors shares should have immediately been distributed to the public rather than being held by the federal government.”

That was what the entire party believed. Bailing out Wall Street was one thing, but bailing out a non-financial industry was a step toward endless socialism.

If you could have gone back to 2009 and told Republicans that their 2012 nominee was trying to hug Obama on the auto bailout -- or, now, get to his left! – they never, ever would have believed you. It would have been more plausible to believe that the GOP nominee would be running as a huge fan of Obamacare.