The new Obama administration followed with more than $60 billion in aid, more expansive requirements and hands-on management of the crisis.
With hundreds of thousands of jobs at stake, ideology took a back seat. "Sometimes circumstances get in the way of philosophy," Bush said in a speech this month. "I didn't want there to be 21 percent unemployment."
Steven Rattner, who led Obama's auto task force, credited Bush with giving his team "a little breathing room" to restructure the companies and for providing a framework of "expected sacrifices that paved the way for our demands for give-ups from the stakeholders."
Obama's account of the automakers' recovery is true enough but skips key points.
For one, "we" had nothing to do with Ford, which declined a bailout and climbed back on its own. Second, viewers of the speech might not know that Chrysler is an Italian-owned company now.
Obama frequently invokes the unspecified "some" who thought the industry "should die" in what is a veiled swipe at Republicans who oppose the bailout, Romney prominently among them. But like the other GOP candidates, Romney never expressed a death wish for the auto industry. Nor did Republican congressional leaders.
At most, some were willing to take that risk by having automakers try to restructure in bankruptcy without a bailout. It's a course few believed would work in 2008. But bankruptcy is intended as a second chance, not an execution. It's the path Obama followed, though with massive federal aid that sweetened the odds.
SANTORUM: "All the federal government did was basically tip to the cronies, tip to the unions, gave the unions the company." — June 13 New Hampshire debate.
ROMNEY: "The idea of billions of dollars being wasted initially — then finally they adopted the managed bankruptcy. I was among others that said we ought to do that. And then after that, they gave the company to the UAW. They gave General Motors to the UAW and they gave Chrysler to Fiat." — Nov. 10 Michigan debate.
THE FACTS: These are distorted accounts of complex arrangements by which the companies, unions, government and courts fashioned a plan to lighten staggering health care and pension costs at the heart of the automakers' decline.
A trust owned by the United Auto Workers — but not directly managed by the union — received a 17.5 percent ownership stake in GM in return for taking over the health care costs of blue-collar retirees. That stake declined as the company left government ownership by selling stock to the public; it's now about 10 percent. In return for its share, the UAW could not strike over wages at Chrysler or GM in the last round of contract talks, and it gave other concessions too.
Just as the government did not give GM to the union, it did not give Chrysler to Fiat.
Chrysler and Fiat have paid back all but $1.3 billion of Chrysler's $12.5 billion bailout — with taxpayers likely to be out the rest. The Italian automaker got control of Chrysler by buying 23.5 percent of the company from the U.S. and Canadian governments, after receiving an initial 20 percent stake in exchange for management expertise and technology, then 15 percent for meeting performance targets.
The government has recouped more than $22 billion of its nearly $50 billion GM bailout, after agreeing to take stock in return for most of its investment. The government would get an additional $13.5 billion if it sold its remaining stock at current value. It is waiting for the stock price to rise before doing so, meaning the final cost to taxpayers is unknown.
GINGRICH: "Having become deeply involved in GM's operation, the federal government has a vested interest in the company's success. So what is stopping it from requiring all Americans — under threat of penalty — to buy a GM car?" — In his book "A Nation Like No Other," published last summer.