Mitt Romney's Car Wreck

The son of an auto executive has some explaining to do in Michigan.

Mitt Romney, son of Michigan, is trying to speed away from a car wreck of an issue.

So far, it’s not working.

With the Michigan primary coming up on Feb. 28, Romney was thought to be the favorite in a state where his father was not just governor but a top auto executive. But there’s this teensy problem of a New York Times op-ed piece that Mitt wrote in 2008 after Barack Obama was elected, headlined: “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”

Not the most popular stance to have to defend these days, especially since the Obama administration revived the American car industry with a bailout package that was, like all federal rescues, controversial at the time.

General Motors and Chrysler aren’t just solvent, they’re profitable, with GM pulling in a staggering $8 billion in profits last year.

So what’s an anti-bailout guy who now wants to be president to do? Romney took to the pages of the Detroit News to recall his father George, the onetime head of American Motors, saying he “got my love of cars and chrome and fins and roaring motors from him.”

Oh, and that bailout thing? Obama bungled it, even though the car companies are now zooming along. “Instead of doing the right thing and standing up to union bosses, Obama rewarded them,” Romney writes.

By giving the union an equity stake in GM and Chrysler, Mitt argues, Obama was engaged in “crony capitalism on a grand scale.” What’s more, “I believe that without his intervention things there would be better.”

Actually, without his intervention—and an earlier, more tentative effort by the Bush administration—they would have been sold off for parts.

If the bailout had blown up and the taxpayers never recovered a dime, Romney and the rest of the Republican candidates would be denouncing the president every day for a big-government disaster. And they would have had every right to do so. It was a calculated gamble that paid off.

Plus, as the New York Times points out, the unions paid a price for the bailout in the form of lost jobs, reduced health benefits and lower wages for new workers.

Democrats battled back Tuesday with a conference call in which former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm—now a host on Al Gore’s Current TV—accused Romney of “stabbing us in the back” by opposing the bailout.

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Romney’s argument that his plan for a “managed bankruptcy” would have been better ignores the reality that nobody wanted to put money into GM and Chrysler when they were at death’s door. But more important, it’s a complicated political argument to make: Yes, Obama kinda sorta succeeded, but in a bad way, and if only they had listened to me…

None of this might matter if Rick Santorum, who has made manufacturing jobs part of his stump speech, weren’t mounting a strong challenge in the Michigan primary. It’s an uphill battle for Santorum, but he’s got some momentum—and a few extra million bucks—from winning three contests last week. (Forget Maine. Nobody can figure out who won anyway.)

As the primary draws closer, press scrutiny of Romney’s position on the bailout is certain to increase. And he’s going to find it as hard to explain his stance as his decision to strap the family dog to the roof of his car for a long vacation drive.