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Setting the record straight on the auto rescue

<p>A key part of Mitt Romney's strategy in last night's debate was to shift the focus away from foreign policy -- even in the debate

A key part of Mitt Romney's strategy in last night's debate was to shift the focus away from foreign policy -- even in the debate devoted to foreign policy -- and onto the economy. There was, however, one problem with the tactic: Romney is wrong about domestic issues, too.

By some measures, one of the most contentious exchanges of the night was over President Obama's successful rescue of the American auto industry.

The dispute was pretty straightforward: Obama said to Romney, "You were very clear that you would not provide government assistance to the U.S. auto companies even if they went through bankruptcy. You said that they could get it in the private marketplace. That wasn't true."

Romney said in response, "You're wrong," three times. The Republican concluded, "People can look it up."

What a good idea.

In a debate in which many of the disputes are subjective, it's nice to have an argument in which there's an objective truth. Romney told viewers last night that his position was that American auto makers "can get government help and government guarantees" as part of the bankruptcy process.

Depending on how generous one is inclined to be, this is either a lie or a stunning case of "Romnesia."

Jonathan Cohn, who's done some great reporting on the auto rescue in recent years, noted Romney's condemnation during the Republican primaries of using public funds for the industry. Here's what Romney said during a debate in late 2011:

"My view with regards to the bailout was that whether it was by President Bush or by President Obama, it was the wrong way to go. I said from the very beginning they should go through a managed bankruptcy process, a private bankruptcy process. We have capital markets and bankruptcy. ... My plan, we would have had a private sector bailout with the private sector restructuring and bankruptcy with the private sector guiding the direction as opposed to what we had with government playing its heavy hand."

As a substantive matter, this didn't make any sense -- capital markets were frozen at the height of the crisis, and the money simply wasn't there. It was either the government or nothing. Last night, Romney argued the opposite of his position, saying he supported auto makers getting "government help."

By any measure, this isn't just a flip-flop; it's failing to tell the truth about a flip-flop.

And in terms of political salience, all of this only serves as a reminder to the nation -- most notably some folks in Ohio -- that if Romney had his way, the American auto industry would have collapsed, waiting for private investment that would have never come.