Maintaining consistent policy positions when running for President is really, really hard. Seriously. Sure, it's tempting to paraphrase the old line about truthfulness vs. lying, and say that you never need to remember what positions you've taken, if you always just say what you believe. But it's not that simple.
Not only do times and events change, and new information or evidence appears, but there are political realities. Remember, a Presidential candidate has to take (reasonably coherent and internally cosistent) positions on an incredibly broad range of issues, while trying to please a truly enormous number of primary and caucus voters, while remaining viable for the unfathomably huge and diverse general-election electorate.
Plus, over time the electorate changes. Hey, not that long ago an ambitious Republican pol could think that he'd be wise to back innovative, market-based governmental solutions to acknowledged public problems. The GOP electorate has changed since then.
So if you've been running for President for, oh, roughly seven years, as Mitt Romney has, it really is difficult -- even if you're not the kind of politician who says whatever you think will help you get elected at the moment.
All of which is a long way around to say that Romney got himself really screwed on this auto bailout thing.
Democrats are using the hook of Chrysler's early loan payback to rip the hell out of Mitt -- who is supposed to be Mr. Super-Expert on business, plus is the son of an auto-industry exec. Romney even did his '08 launch at a Michigan auto-industry setting.
So, yeah, back in late '08 Romney penned an op-ed saying that bailing out America's auto companies would be a huge mistake. See, at that point soon-to-be-Tea-Partying conservatives were against anything that sounded like a "bailout," so naturally Romney had to be against it. He recommended a "managed bankruptcy," but was very clear that no taxpayer money should change hands from the government to the car companies.
What happened, of course, was both: a managed bankruptcy and large bailout loan, which in fact rescued the auto industry and seems to have turned out really, really well for everybody.
This is a very difficult thing for conservatives to fathom, because in the meantime they had adopted the belief that whatever exactly the Obama administration had done with the auto companies was part of the Socialist Takeover -- the 16% of the economy or whatever it is that the federal government had seized from private hands. The auto bailout was a central part of that.
So when Romney spokesperson Eric Fehrnstom responded to the Democrats' ribbing by telling the New York Times yesterday that in fact the successful turnaround plan was based on Romney's idea, he was running into problems on all sides. (Aside: The headline on that Times blog post reads "Refighting the Auto Industry Bailout Battle," but the wording in the url, and the way it was Tweeted, is the delicious "Romney claims credit for auto rescue he opposed.")
See, on the one hand, it extended the story's life, because of course the Democrats were going to point out that Romney only wanted the bankruptcy, and opposed the loan, and both were instrumental in tandem -- there would have been no comeback without both parts. So now Romney will be pressed to explain, and so far those explanations are only raising more questions.
And it's actually even worse, I would argue, if you look in between that 11/08 op-ed and this week's exchange -- at Romney's book, which came out in Spring 2010 (and again, somewhat altered, in Spring 2011). He addresses the auto bailout quite a bit in the book. "I opposed Washington's bailout for the industry..." he wrote. "The managed bankruptcy that I proposed ultimately occurred, but only after tens of billions of dollars of taxpayer money had been wasted..."
He then goes on, importantly, to make the case that the government's intervention was seriously imperiling the industry. He claims that "a CEO of an automotive industry corporation" informs him that the government is micro-managing the car companies, which Romney predicts will, if true, lead to ruinous results.
Indeed, at several points in the book Romney bemoans the fact that the federal government did not immediately hold an IPO to distribute General Motors shares to the public. He repeatedly warns that if the government owns the shares, then "meddling politicians and bureaucrats" will harm the company. These admonitions remain in the paperback version released this year, despite the fact that most of the shares were sold, in an IPO last November, that raised a stunning $20 billion "in response to huge investor demand," as Reuters put it. So, not ruined so much.
But the other problem here for Romney is that he appears to be getting sucked into defending the successful government intervention in the auto industry -- while the conservatives whose votes he needs still deny that it was a success. (If you don't read the conservative blogosphere: they are arguing that Chrysler's payback this week is a phony switcheroo with another loan Chrysler is getting, all set up to make it seem like the bailout worked.)
All the explanations about which aspect of the intervention -- bankuptcy, bailout, whatever -- helped the industry rebound are of no matter to conservatives who think any intervention is anathema. Romney, I'm sorry to say, is taking Obama's side on this issue in the great battle of what Mark Levin calls Liberty vs. Tyranny. (Note: Whatever Obama does, that's the Tyranny side.)
And here's the real kicker: Romney was for far more intervention to save the auto companies, before the conservative reaction to the Fall '08 crisis turned them (and in turn him) into anti-bailout absolutists.
Back in early 2008, before all that, Romney specifically differentiated himself from John McCain on this issue, in the battle for the Michigan primary. McCain, with his tendency to use really ill-advised phrasing on economic matters, had said that "some of the jobs that have left the state of Michigan are not coming back." Romney, desperately needing to win Michigan, jumped on that and argued that as President he would use the power of the federal government to do anything and everything to save the auto companies. (I have seen mentions that this included a proposal of direct aid, but I don't know if Romney ever actually made such a proposal.)
So, as Romney tries to square his November '08 views with how things turned out, he will bump up against the new conservative electorate's anti-interventionism, but his explanations to them will run him right into those January 2008 comments, and around and around he goes.