No, Mitt Romney Didn't Save the Auto Industry

Romney's remarkable statements represent a turnaround in either policy or memory that makes the stunning new success of GM pale in comparison.

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One might think that presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney would be a little more careful on two fronts: thinking about how his comments will come across before he says them, and being sensitive to concerns about him changing his views on things. So what would lead a smiling Romney to take credit for the resurgence of the automobile industry?

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Somewhat incredibly, Romney, campaigning recently in auto industry-reliant Ohio, told a Cleveland radio station:

I'll take a lot of credit for the fact that this industry's come back. My own view is that the auto companies needed to go through bankruptcy before government help. And frankly, that's finally what the president did. He finally took them through bankruptcy.

Forget about the auto industry turnaround; Romney's remarkable statements represent a turnaround in either policy or memory that makes the stunning new success of GM pale in comparison. This is a candidate who, in 2008, penned a New York Times op-ed entitled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." And while the headline (which Romney did not write) was a tad provocative, Romney was very clear in the piece in  saying that if the auto bailout went ahead, "you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye."

It's hard to imagine Romney forgot about that op-ed, which has been resurrected many times in the media. It's a weakness for Romney in the industrial Midwest. But purporting to be the source of Obama's strategy (as if the president was taking advice from Romney) is a metaphorical shaking of the Etch A Sketch that requires a bodybuilder to achieve.

[ See pictures of Mitt Romney.]

A lot of conservatives are unhappy with Romney, and it's not just because they don't think he's conservative enough, it's because they aren't confident he means what he says about conservative issues. The man who promised to be more pro gay rights than late Sen. Ted Kennedy has a hard time convincing social conservatives he will be the opposite. The man who once supported abortion rights has a tough task in convincing the GOP base that he feels differently now. It's one of the reasons primary foe Rick Santorum took so long to endorse Romney, and then did so in a long E-mail to Santorum supporters—an E-mail in which he delivered the most tepid of endorsements to Romney. So attempting to rewrite history for voters in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania doesn't help with his image.

Romney's argument in 2008 would look smarter if Obama's strategy didn't work. But it did, and even if Romney has a sincere free-market opposition to industry bailouts, he could acknowledge that happy development without endorsing government ownership of private industry. He could say, Gosh, I'm glad things are looking up. But we're going down a dangerous road if we let the federal government tinker with private companies that way. It undermines the principles of the free market and entrepreneurship, and it exposes the government to private-sector losses if the companies don't rebound. That's a less powerful argument to make now that the auto industry is coming back, but at least it's sincere and consistent.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

It's also possible that this is all about Obama, and the refusal by some of his opponents to give him credit for anything, even if there's a clear success. Obama gave the order to kill Osama bin Laden, and it worked—the most hated man in America is dead, and not a single Navy SEAL died in the mission. But many Republicans first blasted  Obama for not crediting Bush's work on the effort, and now are mad because Obama is touting the major success as some proof that, well, he's done some good things in office. No one can credibly argue that it's bad that bin Laden is dead, so Obama critics—who still can't seem to accept the fact that he's actually the president—want to argue that Obama had little to do with it.

That makes Romney's "I take a lot of credit" comment especially jarring. If it's "spiking the ball" for Obama to take credit for killing bin Laden, how do we characterize the words of a candidate who takes credit for something he opposed, but which turned out to be successful? The campaign, like most campaigns, will erase some of the past with a symbolic Etch A Sketch. But you can't Etch A Sketch away history.