Was the auto bailout Mitt Romney's idea?

Mitt Romney is saying that the auto bailout looks a lot like what he suggested in 2008. Yes, and no. But there are good reasons why Romney's bringing it up – and why Dems are fighting back.

Stephan Savoia/AP
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney announces he is running for President of the United States, Thursday, June 2, during a campaign event at Bittersweet Farm in Stratham, N.H.

Was the auto bailout Mitt Romney’s idea? He and his campaign in recent days have insisted that they get at least some credit for suggesting a plan to save GM and Chrysler that the Obama administration later followed.

In 2008, former Massachusetts Governor Romney published an opinion piece in The New York Times titled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” It outlined a process whereby the Tottering Two would go through a managed bankruptcy process with a government guarantee of post-Chapter 11 financing, allowing them to cut costs by shedding dealers and renegotiating labor contracts.

“That’s what happened,” pointed out Romney in a Friday interview on the CBS "Early Show."

Yes, yes it is. Romney probably would object to being linked to the word “bailout,” however. He’d use that to describe the billions shoveled into the firms by the Bush and Obama administrations prior to the auto firm’s entrance into bankruptcy court in early 2009 – subsidies he opposed.

Plus, President Obama probably did not clip his piece from the NYT’s dead tree edition and route it to his economic team with a note that said, “This sounds great! Do it!” A managed bankruptcy for the Detroit behemoths was an option many experts talked a lot about at the time.

And Romney’s tone in regards to Detroit’s situation at the time was a bit bracing as far as Michiganders were concerned. After all, the Romneys are to the Mitten State what the Kennedys are to Massachusetts and the Bushes are to Maine and Texas and wherever else they have houses – political royalty. Mitt’s dad George saved American Motors and then became a beloved Michigan governor. So they hurt along Woodward Avenue when Mitt said in 2009 that the US investment in GM was “a very, very sad circumstance for this country.”

For these and other reasons, top Democrats have pushed back against Romney’s assertions, saying that if it was up to him we’d all be driving foreign cars. Romney is “trying to run away” from his previous stand on helping the auto industry, said Democratic National Committee chairman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D) of Florida at a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor last week.

Why the tussle over GMC Tahoes? It’s a bit early in the 2012 cycle for interparty squabbles over such a specific issue, isn’t it? Yes – but we can think of a number of reasons why this is in the news now.

Michigan could be key to the GOP race. Under current state law Michigan is set to hold its primary on Feb. 28, 2012. That’s early (earlier than the Republican National Committee wants it to be, in fact). If the date holds, Michigan could be a key player in deciding whether front-runner Romney builds early momentum.

Democrats want to ding Romney on economics. This time around, Romney is making economic competence the core of his campaign. That was clear from his official announcement that he’s entering the race. “I believe I can get our economy going again,” he said on Thursday.

Challenging Romney on the auto issue might be a way for Dems to tarnish his executive image.

Autos equal America. The firms that used to be called the Big Three have long been an image of US strength and ingenuity, the Ford Pinto and the Olds Starfire notwithstanding. In political terms, arguing over who saved Detroit might be a proxy battle for which candidate is more truly attuned to American values.

Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz last week at the Monitor breakfast said of some GOP candidates: “I’m concerned about their commitment to American exceptionalism.” Republicans say the same thing about Mr. Obama. On Friday, for example, Romney ridiculed the president for his “awfully European” economic policies.

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