Why Mitt Romney's auto bailout position doesn't play in Michigan

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DETROIT -- The Feb. 28 Michigan Republican primary election has devolved horribly into a referendum on whether the Bush and Obama administrations did the right thing by bailing out the auto industry in late 2008 and 2009.

Here's a quick review of the facts -- from my perspective.

Michigan native Mitt Romney is being pilloried in the local and national media for his varying positions on the bailout. Bloomberg News has documented three flip-flops by the leading GOP presidential hopeful.

Romney and all the Republican candidates, including the rising star Rick Santorum, are ideologically prohibited from supporting government intervention in the private sector no matter what. In this case, their stance is that saving the private sector of the Midwest and saving a million jobs was wrong because government dollars were involved -- and thus it amounts to "socialism."

Bush's call

Republican George W. Bush, when he was a candidate for the top job, probably would have said the same thing. But when he became President George W. Bush, he realized there were no other options because there was no private sector money available to save General Motors, Chrysler, GMAC and Chrysler Financial.

Bush, speaking at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention earlier this month, defended his decision to bail out the industry, saying he would do it again.

Somehow "socialism" and "Bush" just don't sound right together, do they?

But this is an election year and the reality of history simply doesn't apply. At all.

Santorum, to his credit, is consistent on his opposition to all bailouts. And he even criticized Bush for his bailouts. Santorum, therefore, would have let the entire U.S. economy -- not just the Midwest -- collapse in the name of conservative ideology.

Romney's flip-flops

But getting back to Romney, his flip-flops on this issue defy all logic, particularly for a candidate from Michigan with a father who once ran American Motors Corp.

And while the UAW, Michigan's Republic Gov. Rick Snyder and many others in the media are rightfully exposing Romney's failed logic, the most credible opinion is that of Steven Rattner, the former Obama administration car czar who actually executed the bailouts.

Here's what he told Bloomberg this week about Romney's position:

"If the advice that he [Romney] had prescribed in November of 2008 had been followed by either the Bush administration or the Obama administration, we would have today no auto industry, no Detroit, no state of Michigan -- no exaggeration."

You can reach Philip Nussel at pnussel@crain.com.

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