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Mitt Romney wounded by anti-bailout stance on return home to Michigan

Romney’s insistence that the auto bailout was bad for Detroit risks a loss of votes in the state where his father was governor

In Detroit, a job is everything.

The city, once an engine of American economic might and now a byword for industrial decline, has suffered more than most during the Great Recession.

So when Carol McRary, 51, got a position two years ago as a janitor for car giant Chrysler, it meant the end of several years of desperate unemployment and allowed her to keep paying her mortgage.

But Chrysler itself – along with huge swaths of the rest of Detroit’s car industry – owes much of its current existence to a massive government bailout in the depths of the economic crisis. So when McRary hears of Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s opposition to that bailout she gets angry. “He needs to rethink that. It was a blessing. It saved me. So many people would not have a job without it.”

Now, with Michigan emerging as the next vital must-win state in the GOP presidential race, Romney is struggling under his anti-bailout stance. He summed up his views in a now notorious New York Times article he wrote in 2008 under the headline “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt”. That piece opened with the sentence: “If General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout … you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye.”

Fortunately for Michigan, but unfortunately for Romney’s political triangulating, the auto bailout is now widely considered a triumph. Some experts believe it could have saved as many as 1.5 million jobs. It has also allowed the American car industry to roar back to life. Just this week, GM posted record profits, paid hefty bonuses to its factory workers and edged out Toyota to once again become the biggest automaker in the world.

But Romney is holding his ground. This week he published another editorial, this time in the Detroit News, in which he stood by his opposition to major government intervention in the private economy and lambasted President Obama’s role in the bailout. At an appearance in Grand Rapids, Michigan’s second biggest city, Romney claimed that the auto industry bailout had in fact granted far too much influence to the giant UAW union, one of the few remaining genuinely powerful labour groups in the US.

Obama “gave GM and Chrysler to the UAW”, he told a crowd of Republican voters at a rally in a local office furniture factory. “I care very deeply about the auto industry, but you can protect a great industry without giving in to the UAW,” he added. Slamming “union bosses” is now a key attack line in Romney’s stump speech.

Not surprisingly Romney’s stance cuts little ice with union leaders in the car industry. UAW president Bob King told the Guardian that only government money could have saved the car industry.

“There were no banks and no financial institutions that were willing to lend any money to General Motors or to Chrysler. If the government had not loaned that money, they would have gone to liquidation,” he said. King added that Romney’s stance was going to damage him. “It’s just not honest,” he said. “When you are not honest, it backfires.”

But a more unexpected source of criticism is the conservative Economist magazine. Last week the respected weekly wrote a piece taking Romney to task, noting that it too had opposed the bailout but later had the good sense to apologise for it. “A Detroiter in his own mind,” it scathingly observed of Romney.

But the real question for Romney and his hopes of winning Michigan is how does the Republican base feel? After all, they are the ones actually voting in the coming February 28 primary, and few of them are unionised autoworkers.

In Grand Rapids, Jason Brinks, a 35-year-old Michigan financier, came to see Romney and attended a brief roundtable business discussion with him. He liked Romney’s stance on ideological grounds. “I agree with him. They should be allowed to fail,” he said.

In Brinks’s world, Romney’s auto bailout stand could help him. Romney has often had a credibility gap with conservatives, and there is no better way to prove your hardcore fiscal bona fides than by opposing a bailout, even if it worked and saved a state’s economy. “He is trying to fight the image that he’s not conservative enough. But that’s a pretty conservative stance,” said Steve Mitchell, founder of Michigan-based political consulting group Mitchell Research.

But it is a complex picture. If Romney does become the nominee, Michigan is a top Republican target in the party’s quest to regain the White House in the general election. Obama and vice-president Joe Biden have visited Michigan recently, touting the bailout’s success. “The auto bailout worked, and it is something Obama mentions every time he comes to town,” said Mitchell.

It also sums up the wider struggle of the Republican party in general, and with Romney in particular, to genuinely excite its supporters. In the crowd in Grand Rapids was retired nurse Kris Apol, 63. She had no idea which Republican candidate she wanted to vote for, even though she was adamant she wanted Obama out. “It’s like a puzzle. I’d like to take a piece of each of them to make a perfect man,” she said. Even Brinks’ support for Romney was only lukewarm. “Romney is probably the best of them,” he said with little enthusiasm.

This all explains Romney’s shocking current standing in Michigan, where he trails surging former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum in all recent polls. Yet this is the state Romney grew up in and where his father, George Romney, was governor and a top auto industry executive. Romney won here in 2008 when he was first running for president, and his recent swing through the state had been dubbed a “coming home” tour.

But again, Romney’s stance on the auto bailout hampers his attempts to portray himself as a favourite son of Michigan. In his most recent political ad Romney is shown driving a car around Detroit, talking about his love for the city and its biggest industry. But some feel such imagery now feels hollow, despite the fact Santorum has a similar – but less high-profile – stance on government intervention. “Romney said what he said. Voters know it and it hurts him,” said Professor Kevin den Dulk, a political scientist at Calvin College in Grand Rapids.

As a result of this, the tide of negative advertising that has marked all recent Republican contests is now washing over Michigan. A pro-Romney Super Pac – an organisation allowed to support him but legally barred from co-ordinating with his campaign – is flooding the airwaves with negative attack ads. They paint Santorum as a big-spending Washington insider. At the moment Romney and his allies are outspending Santorum’s team by three to one in Michigan.

It has worked before: Romney’s attack machine successfully fended off challenges from former House speaker Newt Gingrich in both Iowa and Florida by flooding the airwaves. That has some close observers in Michigan predicting that Santorum’s lead will now also wither. “I think it is going to be like Florida. Romney’s advertising will swallow Santorum up,” said one top Republican strategist in the state.

Romney’s team knows how important Michigan is. A loss here would devastate the campaign ahead of Super Tuesday in early March, just when the campaign was hoping to wrap things up. “It would have a huge impact,” said Mitchell.

But that would please one person in the shape of McRary. Standing in the car park of the giant Detroit Chrysler plant in which she works, she said Romney losing Michigan would only be just reward for his auto bailout stance. “I hope it hurts him. I truly hope it does,” she said. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds