WASHINGTON -- During one of the first exchanges of Tuesday night's debate, Mitt Romney tried to argue that the vision he had for Detroit's auto makers during the financial crisis wasn't all that different from President Barack Obama's.
"He said that I said we should take Detroit bankrupt," Romney said, paraphrasing a reliable Obama campaign line, as well as the headline that accompanied Romney's now-famous opinion piece on the rescue. "And that's right. My plan was to have the company go through bankruptcy like 7-Eleven did and Macy's and Continental Airlines and come out stronger."
"You took General Motors bankrupt," Romney told Obama directly. "You took Chrysler bankrupt. So when you say that I wanted to take the auto industry bankrupt, you actually did."
Romney did advocate that GM and Chrysler enter bankruptcy, and the two auto makers eventually did go through that process. But just as he has throughout his presidential run, Romney declined to mention that those companies may not have made it through bankruptcy without major federal invention, considering how difficult it was to borrow money in late 2008.
By arguing that Washington should merely stand behind private-sector loans, as Romney did in his 2008 op-ed in The New York Times, he laid out a plan that was quite different from Obama's. The president expanded on the rescue plan begun by his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, who also had a different vision from Romney's.
Romney's insistence on taking some kind of credit for the auto rescue has baffled United Auto Workers President Bob King. In an interview with The Huffington Post after the debate, King said that Romney refuses to "quit digging his hole" when it comes to the Obama auto rescue, which has become more popular among voters now that the industry has generally rebounded.
"People know he was opposed to it. Why he tries to spin it, I don’t know," King said. "It's just ridiculous ... There was no private money available. If they follow Romney's formula, we would have lost a million jobs."
"It was just dishonest," he said in reference to Romney's comments at the debate. "It says something about who he is that he won't admit he was wrong and think he can twist it."
The Romney campaign did not immediately comment when asked for a response to King's statements.
In just one sign of how Romney's auto rescue position has hobbled his campaign, the page on his official website listing his various opinion pieces comes with this footnote: "*Often op-eds like these are given a title by the publication they appear in. For example, Mitt did not provide a title for the article above “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt”. That title was chosen by the New York Times."
Steven Rattner, the "auto czar" who helped the Obama administration craft its rescue, has maintained that leaving the auto makers to the private market would have been a disaster for Detroit and the larger economy. In his own op-ed in the Times on the subject, Rattner said earlier this year that Romney's plan amounted to "utter fantasy."
"I hope he keeps making it," King said of Romney's auto rescue argument. "It shows his lack of integrity."