WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney's opposition to the loans President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama have extended to the auto industry has long been an awkward scab on his presidential campaign. In Ohio, in particular, one out of every eight jobs is connected to the sector.
Having insisted, during fall 2008, that Detroit would have been better off going through a managed bankruptcy, Romney's been left to explain the nuances of his position or, simply, fudge it.
During Monday night's third and final presidential debate -- as he's done before -- Romney chose the latter course:
I said they need -- these companies need to go through a managed bankruptcy. And in that process, they can get government help and government guarantees, but they need to go through bankruptcy to get rid of excess cost and the debt burden that they'd -- they'd built up.
I said that we would provide guarantees and — and that was what was able to allow these companies to go through bankruptcy, to come out of bankruptcy. Under no circumstances would I do anything other than to help this industry get on its feet. And the idea that has been suggested that I would liquidate the industry — of course not. Of course not.
Romney is right on one front. In his infamous New York Times op-ed, titled by the paper "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," he did say that government money should be made available for automakers if they needed help emerging from bankruptcy. But that's really not the point of the debate.
As Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic pointed out, the question confronting the president in late 2008 and early 2009 was "how the two car companies [Chrysler and GM] would get money to reorganize." They needed the cash in order to pay their bills while in bankruptcy because if they couldn't pay their bills they wouldn't get loans. The government, in fact, went looking for private-sector lenders to help with the cost. But because of the recession none of them -– not even Romney's own Bain Capital -– would bite.
So the question became, should the president act? And on that front, there is very little confusion with respect to Romney's stance. As the Associated Press headlined a Nov. 20, 2008 article: "Romney adamantly against auto industry bailout." And as Romney himself told CBS News that day, in a clip that hasn't re-surfaced yet this election cycle: "There's no question but that if you just write a check that you're going to see these companies go out of business ultimately."
Romney would repeat the line during an interview with NBC's "Today" show that same day.
"If you write a check, they're going to go out of business," he said. "If instead you help them restructure, you make them cost-competitive with the Japanese, they can stay in business virtually forever. And so this is a time, an opportunity for us, to help these companies shed their excess costs so they can stay in business."