Unfortunate Son

Michael Tomasky on the GOP’s Michigan Giveaway

Republicans are continuing to reject the auto bailout—and giving up on winning Michigan in November.

Kevin York / AP Photo

Michiganders, take pride: your 2012 primary will go down in American political history as perhaps the single most eye-popping case ever of a party’s demands on its candidates during the primary fight reducing its chance of winning the state in November from something not far from half to near zero. This is especially true if Rick Santorum manages to pull the upset and go on to be the nominee; Barack Obama’s campaign wouldn’t have to spend one thin dime in Michigan and would still win by at least 15 points. But it’s true also if unfavorite son Mitt Romney manages to win. Horse-race polls that once showed a tough battle between the two now project an Obama blowout. And the important point to take away here is that this change is not a matter of politics. It’s a matter of policy.

I’ve been shocked by many positions conservatives have taken in recent years, but I can honestly say that none was quite as flabbergasting as the opposition to the auto bailout. Their opposition to health-care reform—totally understandable. Their whacks at the domestic budget, their hue and cry against the stimulus, their battle to rein in entitlement spending, even their posture on social and cultural issues—all were taken to extremes, but each of those made a kind of sense when you thought about the party’s trajectory over the past couple of decades.

But the idea of letting one of the country’s most important industries just wither and die? This, I remember thinking at the time, was the jump-the-shark moment. I couldn’t believe that their hatred of Obama and of any action involving the federal government was so great that they’d let hundreds of thousands of people—in key states like Michigan and Ohio, no less—lose their jobs. I was also dumbfounded that, for a pretty long time, the American people, so inculcated with mistrust of the government, opposed the bailout. As late as September 2010 there was a poll showing that people were against the bailout by 56 to 43 percent.

Obviously, the Republicans thought they had a winning issue on their hands. But how are quotes like these holding up today? From a November 2008 USA Today article, here’s Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl: “Just giving them $25 billion doesn’t change anything. It just puts off for six months or so the day of reckoning.” From an E. J. Dionne column last May, here’s what a couple other Republicans said. Indiana Rep. Dan Burton: “Having the federal government involved in every aspect of the private sector is very dangerous. In the long term it could cause us to become a quasi-socialist country.” Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas called the bailout “the leading edge of the Obama administration’s war on capitalism.”

And oh, here’s one more: “Without that bailout, Detroit will need to drastically restructure itself. With it, the automakers will stay the course—the suicidal course of declining market shares, insurmountable labor and retiree burdens, technology atrophy, product inferiority, and never-ending job losses. Detroit needs a turnaround, not a check.” That, as you’ve probably guessed, was Romney, from the now-famous New York Times op-ed of November 2008.

Suicidal course ... changes nothing ... quasi-socialist country ... and of course, the topper: a war on capitalism. All patently ridiculous. On the symbolic level, they represented the worst kind of cynicism—efforts to convince Americans that the government is evil and corrupt, and to stoke people’s anger and fear in horrible economic times. And on a substantive level, they have proven to be simply and fantastically wrong on virtually every count. Detroit is making competitive cars; yes, it’s terrible that it took the Big Three (or at least two of them) until their backs were absolutely pressed against the wall to do so, but they did it. The unions, far from benefiting as Romney laughably charges, have taken major concessions, but at least they still exist. This, of course, as far as the GOP is concerned, is part of the problem. There is no question in my mind that an unspoken part of the Republican agenda on the bailout was to crush the UAW once and for all. If that meant a quarter million or so jobs had to go in the process, well, in every war there is cannon fodder.

Meanwhile, go back and reread the Times’s account of Obama’s announcement of his bailout plan, in March 2009. In nearly every particular, the decisions and actions hold up awfully well. Obama angered Republicans, yes, but he also upset the unions, whose leaders saw the big concessions coming, and he even tripped up some Democratic Michigan lawmakers by demanding the ouster of then-GM CEO Rick Wagoner.

So the Republicans were wrong about the bailout. But that isn’t even the point. The point is that in opposing the bailout, they really were cheering against America. That’s language that verges on jingoism, and it’s not my usual stock in trade, but in this case it is true. The idea that they were willing to let maybe a quarter-million families lose their breadwinner, out of hatred of Obama and ideological rigidity, was beyond comprehension.

If Romney wins tomorrow, he’ll stand up there all smiles and talk again about his great love for Michigan and its fine people and its perfect trees and its cavernous and empty football stadiums. Don’t be fooled. He lost Michigan this past week, and he richly deserved to. And he didn’t lose it because of some campaign-trail gaffe. He lost it on policy—his, and his party’s. The Democrats should make sure the American people take note.