Who Opposed the Auto Bailouts?

Romney was hardly alone, despite what you read

MICHIGAN — Leading into today’s primary, Michigan journalists have focused on the bailouts for General Motors and Chrysler more than any other issue. You might think it is a moot point: all the Republican candidates opposed these bailouts that date back to the last days of George W. Bush’s presidency, and both auto companies have paid back their loans, years ahead of schedule. GM and Chrysler are now reporting profits.

While the debates about these done deals are more philosophical than practical, the auto bailouts had an outsized impact on Michiganders. The state’s press, accordingly, has given the topic substantial space in its election coverage of late—including op-eds (penned by candidates and union leaders), editorial board interviews, event coverage, columns, debate analysis, business news, editorial cartoons, and a solid Associated Press fact check of the candidates’ claims on the topic.

With such across-the-board treatment, it’s surprising to find an imbalance in coverage along the way: an overemphasis on Mitt Romney’s anti-auto-bailout stance, often without noting that Romney’s GOP opponents, too, opposed the auto bailouts.

See, for example, this February 14th piece from MLive, a statewide news site, reporting that “numerous well-known Michigan Democrats, including former Gov. Jennifer Granholm,” are criticizing Romney for his anti-auto-bailout stance. Just because big name Michigan Democrats aimed their barbs chiefly at Romney doesn’t mean the press has to go along with it. Romney clearly had company in his opposition to the auto bailout and reporters ought to include that context. More recently, the Detroit News reported on President Obama’s ad touting, on Michigan’s airwaves, the auto industry’s recovery. While the “opposition of GOP presidential candidates” to the auto bailout is referenced in the lede of the piece, only Romney’s opposition is further explored.

To an extent, the focus on Romney makes sense: more than any other presidential candidate who opposed the bailout, Romney amplified his views with his now-notorious 2008 New York Times opinion piece. Romney told the Free Press editorial board last week that if he could, he’d change the headline of that piece from “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” to, “How to Save Detroit.” (As a journalist, I sympathize with Romney on this point: it’s troubling to find a headline you didn’t write used as shorthand for the substance of your piece.) Romney also doubled-down on his opposition in an op-ed he wrote for The Detroit News this month. Still, the fact remains that Romney’s position is not palpably different from those of his Republican opponents (even if his opponents haven’t been as “vociferous” about it, as a recent New York Times editorial put it)—and they, too, need their share of the scrutiny.

Among Michigan news outlets, the most solid political coverage of the auto bailouts (and the candidates’ claims about and positions on them) is coming from Todd Spangler, a Washington D.C. correspondent for the Free Press. Spangler’s reporting consistently underscores the fact that while Romney has carried the burden for bailout opposition in both state and national media, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul all oppose the bailouts as well. In coverage of the last Republican debate, Spangler concisely outlined the distinctions that do exist in the candidates’ unanimous auto bailout opposition: Santorum also does not approve of the Wall Street bailouts, which Romney supported, on the principle of the proper role of government; Romney contends that a managed bankruptcy before the carmakers received federal funds would have been successful; Gingrich believes the bankruptcy was facilitated in a way that unfairly benefited the UAW; and, Paul opposes bailouts “of any kind, at any time.”
In a recent article on a Santorum ad in which Santorum positions himself as on the side of Michigan workers—and Romney as “turning his back” on them—Spangler brings meaningful perspective:

But the ad seems to suggest that Romney, by rejecting the [auto] rescue plan, took a stance that hurt workers—even though Santorum took the same stance. Romney did support the bailout package proposed by Republican President George W. Bush in 2008 for financial institutions grudgingly, saying to do otherwise could risk a series of bank collapses that would decimate the economy. Santorum says he opposed the Wall Street bailout.

Such useful reporting is echoed elsewhere: MLive featured an aggregated piece that compared Republican positions on the bailouts. Christina Rogers of Automotive News smartly points out that neither Obama nor any of the Republican candidates seem particularly eager to remind Michigan voters that President Bush initiated the auto bailouts. John Gallagher suggested to Free Press readers that what or whom to credit for Michigan’s nascent economic recovery (and the auto industry’s rebound) is a matter up for debate. (It seems that GM’s CEO agrees). Gallagher observes that while GM and Chrysler are reporting impressive profits, industry challenges still loom, such as rising fuel prices. Importantly, Gallagher also emphasizes that Michigan is not singularly employed by the auto industry, and gives a nod to how the state is diversifying its economy even as manufacturing remains its backbone. It’s a gesture that reminds readers of the importance of candidate policies that go beyond the auto industry.

This is the kind of coverage Michigan readers need more of through the run of the presidential election: reporting that acknowledges the auto industry’s significance in Michigan and examines (and provides context for) the candidates’ related positions and claims. In the end, the auto bailout story is more than just Mitt Romney—and Michigan’s story is more than the auto industry.

Disclosure: The writer of this article contributed to Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008, volunteering on two separate occasions and making a small donation. She has not contributed to any political candidate of any kind in the current election cycle.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.