Romney’s Car Troubles

Oh, poor Republicans. It’s hard not to feel sorry for you this primary season. I mean, imagine having to choose between a wild-eyed lunatic who says anything that pops into his febrile mind, a guy who cheated on his wife while she had cancer, and a stone-faced Massachusetts golem who has managed to parlay an almost preternatural lack of personal charm into frontrunner status.

Well, it’s not that hard to imagine, actually. We progressives lived this nightmare once already. Remember?
If anyone doubted that karma is the law of the universe, just think back to 2004, when the Democrats were poised to unseat a vulnerable incumbent and were forced to choose between a screeching loony, a guy who cheated on his wife while she had cancer, and a scarcely animate Massachusetts moderate with the charisma of moist lint.

Sure, we didn’t yet know that John Edwards had cheated on his terminally ill wife, but there seemed something inescapably smarmy about him. Thus, Democrats ended up nominating the second most unlikable man in the country, John Kerry. The only thing that kept him from being the most unlikable man in the country was that his mother had somehow neglected to name him Mitt.

In 2004, a reasonably well-groomed squirrel monkey could have beaten George W. Bush. Unfortunately, the Democrats didn’t nominate a squirrel monkey. They nominated John Kerry. It just went downhill from there.
Fortunately for the Democrats, it seems more or less inevitable that Republicans will be stuck with Mitt Romney, the Kerry of 2012. Rick Santorum may have tried to position himself as a Washington outsider out of step with D.C. values, but the truth is, he remains out of step with reality pretty much everywhere he goes. And because it’s nearly impossible to find a picture of Newt Gingrich in which he is both smiling and doesn’t look like he wants to devour your children, his campaign never much had a chance.

But Romney is still Romney, and that can only work in Obama’s favor.

The Dems won’t even have to swiftboat him. He’s a human swiftboat, steaming down the Mekong River announcing, "I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners" and "My wife drives a couple of Cadillacs" to the assembled proletariat.

Which brings us to Romney’s automobile problem: It’s clear now that it could very well prove to be his undoing – the Nixon flop sweat, Dukakis tank helmet, and Al Gore lockbox of the 2012 campaign.

As anyone who has followed the Republican primaries knows, in a November 2008 New York Times editorial titled (insert face-palm now) "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," Romney argued that the pending auto bailout was the last thing Detroit needed. The first graph wasn’t much more inspiring, reading, "If General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye."

Fast-forward to 2012, and Detroit is, by all accounts, healthier for the help it received during the 2008 financial crisis. Say what you want about the invisible hand of the market – sometimes that hand drops thousands of jobs and breaks them. Common sense and pragmatism should prevail in such situations, but Mitt wanted to play the purist, and that could yet come back to haunt him.

Now, to be fair, Romney wasn’t content to just let the auto industry collapse in on itself. But he did want the government to take a more hands-off approach to the crisis.

In a February New York Times op-ed, Steve Rattner, the lead advisor to Obama’s auto task force during the crisis, addressed Romney’s prescription:

"[Romney claimed] that the government should have stayed on the sidelines and allowed the companies to go through what he calls ‘managed bankruptcies,’ financed by private capital.

"That sounds like a wonderfully sensible approach – except that it’s utter fantasy. In late 2008 and early 2009, when GM and Chrysler had exhausted their liquidity, every scrap of private capital had fled to the sidelines."

Al Gore missed out on the presidency in 2000 because he failed to capture his home state. In what could be a close election, Romney may have already ceded any chance he had to win Michigan, where he should be a clear favorite.

That might be for the best. After all, the last time a Republican took the wheel, he drove us all into the ditch.

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