It ain’t that often that a potent political attack happens to be true both in the deep sense of substance and in the often more important sense of word play. President Obama took a big gamble continuing and upping the massive auto industry bailout that began fitfully under President Bush. The fact that Mitt Romney wrote a oped at the deadline with the jarring headline “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” is probably enough to skewer him in the court of 30-second ads and speech gotcha lines.
But it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that on the substance, Mitt’s more full of it on this issue than even those headlines would suggest. And I suspect that’s one of the many reasons the Obama campaign has signaled so clearly they plan to make this a major plank of the re-election campaign. Romney’s endlessly changing positions on the auto bailout are perhaps the most powerful example fo the rap that hangs around Romney — that he shifts his position endlessly to suit the political mood of the moment and tries never to commit himself to anything that holds the chance of being a liability later.
Here’s the key point. Romney now claims that he, too, was for a managed bankruptcy of the two then-floundering companies. But just as it was then, it’s a sleight of hand meant to obscure the key fact that at the time in question the credit markets were broken and there was no private capital available to fund the companies’ continued operations while they were being reorganized or to recapitalize to get them on their feet. Really not at any price. Loan guarantees were not enough. It was necessary for the government to depart from what most people would think would make any sense under normal financial conditions and to come in and refloat the auto-industry as an investor of last resort.
There are a lot of details to the story I’m summarizing here. And in truth there really wasn’t one auto bailout — more a running series of bailouts and helpful nudges over a period of several months. But the key point is there was no way to get to this outcome without the government coming in with money — which Romney’s always known was anathema to his wished-for base. So now he’s saying, sure I would have jumped into the pool! It was my idea after all. Just as long as I didn’t get wet.
But that’s a question you simply can’t be on two sides of. And that’s why, in a different sense, he is all wet.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.