Back in 2009, when the newly elected President Barack Obama was contemplating a bailout of the auto-industry, Mitt Romney emerged from his temporary hiatus to push policymakers in the other direction. “Let Detroit go bankrupt,” he urged in an op-ed for New York Times. For Romney, a managed bankrupcy of the kind he had pioneered at Bain Capital was the only way to “save” the American auto industry. As for Obama’s approach, Romney warned that “If General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye.” A few months later, Romney repeated his warning: If Obama continued on his path, “it would make GM the living dead.”
Three years later, Romney’s prediction hasn’t come to pass. The American auto industry is thriving even as conservatives run with the idea that government is categorically ineffective. In February, during the Republican primary in Michigan, Romney further disparaged the auto bailout, granting its success, but accusing Obama of kowtowing to “union bosses.” This message didn’t play well, and only gave Obama and Democrats an opportunity to tout the success of the bailouts, and contrast them with Romney’s position.
Now that Romney is in the general election, he has begun to shake the Etch A Sketch on a number of issues. One of those, if this comment from Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom is any indication, is the bailout:
“[Romney’s] position on the bailout was exactly what President Obama followed,” Fehrnstrom said. “He said, ‘If you want to save the auto industry, just don’t write them a check. That will seal their doom. What they need to do is go through a managed bankruptcy process.’”
“Consider that the crown jewel,” Fehrnstrom said. “The only economic success that President Obama has had is because he followed Mitt Romney’s advice.”
Writing at Talking Points Memo, Pema Levy points out that Romney’s position on the bailout has been hazy; he was vehemently against the administration, but in a way that gave him a way to claim credit, as Fehrnstrom does. Of course, the fact that Romney has rhetorical space to take credit for the bailout doesn’t mean that’s any less ridiculous; it’s the political equivalent of twelve-year-old boasting—“I could have done that too! If you’d picked me first.”
One last observation—this continues an odd pattern by the Romney campaign, which inhabits a frame established by the Obama campaign rather than creating something for themselves. First, there was the “War on Women,” where Romney advisors argued that it was Democrats who were fighting the real war on women, while conceding that the existence of an actual war. Then, in Romney’s speech last Tuesday, there was “fairness,” when the former Massachusetts governor argued that government was the real purveyor of unfairness in the country. And now we have the auto industry bailout, where Romney claims to have been the real mastermind behind the policy.
I’m not sure what the campaign hopes to get out of this approach. By continuously talking about Obama on Obama’s terms, they do nothing but put themselves on the defensive. It’s a bad strategy, and the only saving grace is that we’re still early in the election.