DETROIT -- Auto industry, meet politics. Politics, meet auto industry.
The chatter surrounding the auto industry this election year has become something of a political punching bag over who would have done what, when, how and with the help of whom.
Kristin Dziczek, director of labor and industry at the nonprofit Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the bailouts as a debate years after the fact could be because it's difficult to argue the success of the industry -- especially General Motors and Chrysler -- so instead the argument is centered on the philosophy.
"The main point of the research [at CAR] is that the cost of doing nothing wasn't free," Dziczek said. "You can disagree with it philosophically, but it's hard to argue with the fact that the companies are better structured after the storm.
"It's not a positive force forward for what you're going to do in your presidency, unless it's a cautionary tale to any other industry that might find itself in a similar strait," she said.
Michigan voters will cast their votes tomorrow in the state's GOP primary election, where onetime Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are considered to be in a dead heat -- only a matter of 2 to 4 percentage points apart where the margin of error is the same or more.
The stakes are even higher in the traditional swing state where many residents consider the bailout a success.
However, 50 percent of Michigan Republicans who were likely to vote opposed the government's actions while 42 percent supported the funding, according to a recent NBC/Marist poll quoted by former car czar Steven Rattner in a New York Times op-ed story published last week.
The view from the outside
And so, the debate continues.
Perhaps surprisingly, both Santorum and Romney maintained their positions, even while campaigning in Michigan.
Santorum has made clear that he would not have bailed anyone out, and that GM and Chrysler would be "alive and well, if not better off, than they are now," without the money.
"The markets would have reacted to restructure it to be more competitive," he told a crowd of about 300 people at a Detroit Economic Club luncheon earlier this month.
Romney -- a Michigan native and son of George Romney, a former Michigan governor and American Motors CEO -- upheld his position of a "managed bankruptcy" when he was pressed about it by a retired GM salaried worker at a town hall event in Shelby Township, Mich., last week.
The approach has been largely criticized by those involved in the bankruptcy process, as well as those still feeling the sting of his 2008 New York Times op-ed "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." Adding to the furor is Romney's silence on what he would have changed given the circumstances, even when the retiree at the town hall asked him to provide an answer that acknowledged the lack of able or willing creditors at the time.
Rattner has been one of Romney's largest critics on the matter.
"That sounds like a wonderfully sensible approach -- except that it's an utter fantasy," he said in his op-ed published last week. "In late 2008 and early 2009, when GM and Chrysler had exhausted their liquidity, every scrap of private capital had fled to the sidelines.
"I know this because the administration's task force … spoke diligently to all conceivable providers of funds, and not one had the slightest interest in financing those companies on any terms," he wrote.
Romney, after touting he told the government it should not write the companies a check and should send them through the "managed bankruptcy," said he supported financial aid from the government to the car companies if they needed it after the fact, especially if needed to pay back private financiers.
The view from the inside
The Center for Automotive Research has produced three memos on the matter, including a November 2010 report whose primary findings said the bailout saved more than 1.4 million jobs and $96 billion in personal income.
The report also estimated that avoiding the worst case scenario provided a net government impact of a total of $32.3 billion between 2009 and 2010, in terms of changes in transfer payments, social security receipts and personal income tax receipts -- where Dziczek says people would have paid for the bailout otherwise.
Dziczek also cleared the air on the political rhetoric suggesting all of the loan money has not been paid back.
"All of the loan money that the restructured, emerged companies received was paid back," Dziczek said. "[The loans] are not the liability of the new companies, and the new companies have fully met their obligations on the loans extended to them.
"The only remaining government stake in the auto industry is the equity in GM, which the Treasury is free to sell when it is financially advantageous," she said.
The U.S. government still owns about 32 percent of GM as part of its $49.5 billion rescue.
A 'wise, far-reaching decision'
Though GM so far has called the political banter about its bailouts "a distraction," CEO Dan Akerson took a firm stand on the matter when pressed by reporters at an event in a Detroit-area neighborhood celebrating the work of Habitat for Humanity, as well as a $1 million personal check from Akerson and his wife to jump-start the initiative.
"You can debate this forever, and I'm sure it will be for a long time, but facts are facts," Akerson told reporters. "It worked."
"For the first time in many, many years, all three of the auto manufacturers are profitable, they're hiring, they're building, and they're investing in America. What could be wrong about that, regardless of what party affiliation you're in?"
Akerson went on to say that he does not believe the matter is a political discussion despite being characterized as such.
"It was a wise, far-reaching decision that initiated the action, and, as I said earlier, it was a combination of two administrations," Akerson said. "It's a national dialogue that should be along what was good for the country [and] what was best for the country."