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Conservatives Push Romney as Fox-in Henhouse Car Czar

December 12, 2008

As the American auto industry teeters on the edge of total collapse thanks to the union-busting efforts of Senate Republicans, others on the right have adopted a different strategy for punishing the UAW. Two days after Fred Barnes nominated "nation of whiners" scold Phil Gramm for "car czar," former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is gaining traction as the GOP's point person for its fox-in-the-henhouse approach. After all, given his history as a union-bashing venture capitalist and recent call to "let Detroit go bankrupt," Mitt Romney would be the ideal hatchet man for Republican foes of working Americans.
As ThinkProgress noted this morning, the mouthpieces of the right are feeding a groundswell of support for the son of former American Motors chief:

"There can't be too many folks who would be better qualified to be 'Car Czar' than Mitt Romney," writes the National Review's Jim Geraghty. Investor's Business Daily argues, "His qualifications are curiously perfect."

For his part, Romney did nothing on Fox News today to squelch the campaign, coyly responding, "my guess is that any one of the remarkable business leaders we have in this country would not pine for the job but would accept it out of a sense of obligation and duty."
As it turns out, Romney's "curiously perfect" qualifications and "sense of obligation" consist of manipulating the crisis of the automotive industry for own his political purposes.
During the Michigan primary in January, Mitt Romney blasted John McCain for saying he didn't want to raise "false hopes that somehow we can bring back lost jobs." But as the American auto industry neared a complete meltdown, Romney in a New York Times op-ed in November had a much different message for Detroit: drop dead.
In January, Romney was singing a different tune about the need to save Michigan's car economy from its death spiral. Playing up his home state roots and father George's leadership of the old American Motors, Romney delivered a blistering attack against his primary GOP foe, John McCain:

"I want to bring Michigan back. I am not willing to sit back and say 'too bad for Michigan, too bad for the car industry, too bad for the people who lost their jobs, they are gone forever.' I will not rest when I am president of the United States until Michigan is brought back."

Alas, that was then and this is now.
In his screed last month titled, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," Romney chastised Ford, GM and Chrysler and wished a plague on all three of their houses. Predictably resorting to stale free-market nostrums, the usual right-wing union bashing and a revisionist hagiography of his own father, Romney insisted failure is the only option for an industry which employs up to three million Americans and is vital to U.S. national security.
While he does call management to task, Romney like many of his Republican allies makes unions the principal villain in his free-market passion play. Despite recent UAW concessions which slashed hourly wages for new hires and will shift costs for health care and pension benefits onto the union, Romney pointed the finger of blame squarely at workers:

"First, their [Big Three] huge disadvantage in costs relative to foreign brands must be eliminated. That means new labor agreements to align pay and benefits to match those of workers at competitors like BMW, Honda, Nissan and Toyota. Furthermore, retiree benefits must be reduced so that the total burden per auto for domestic makers is not higher than that of foreign producers.
That extra burden is estimated to be more than $2,000 per car...Considering this disadvantage, Detroit has done a remarkable job of designing and engineering its cars. But if this cost penalty persists, any bailout will only delay the inevitable."

Not once does Romney quantify the impact of his recommendation that "without that bailout, Detroit will need to drastically restructure itself." There is no estimate of the devastating job losses Big Three bankruptcies would produce or the estimated $200 billion impact in unemployment insurance and other government safety net payments which would result from the collapse of GM alone. And Romney is silent on the national security implications as the builders of Abrams battle tanks, Humvees and armored fighting vehicles face halting production during wartime.
One topic, however, where Mitt Romney is not silent is the legend of his father, George Romney. In Romney's telling of the tale, the man who brought Americans such classics as the Rambler, the Marlin, the Pacer, the Gremlin and the Hornet before the ultimate 1987 fire sale of AMC to Chrysler represents the path forward for Detroit:

"I love cars, American cars. I was born in Detroit, the son of an auto chief executive. In 1954, my dad, George Romney, was tapped to run American Motors when its president suddenly died. The company itself was on life support - banks were threatening to deal it a death blow. The stock collapsed. I watched Dad work to turn the company around - and years later at business school, they were still talking about it. From the lessons of that turnaround, and from my own experiences, I have several prescriptions for Detroit's automakers...
...At American Motors, my dad cut his pay and that of his executive team, he bought stock in the company, and he went out to factories to talk to workers directly. Get rid of the planes, the executive dining rooms - all the symbols that breed resentment among the hundreds of thousands who will also be sacrificing to keep the companies afloat."

As for Romney's "own experiences," they include his days as a slash and burn venture capitalist at Bain. Earlier this year, he proclaimed, "I know why jobs come and go." As his record shows, Mitt Romney is all too familiar with why jobs go - out of state, out of the country or just go altogether.
In 1994, Romney's career as a vulture capitalist boomeranged against him in his Senate race against Ted Kennedy. The tale of SCM, a northern Indiana-based stationery company purchased by Ampad, a firm owned by Romney and a group of investors, came to dominate the campaign. As the New York Times recounted, in that instance in the vulture capitalist label was well-earned in the subsequent crackdown on the workers there:

Management has shed 41 of 265 blue-collar jobs, cut wages, tripled some workers' health insurance payments, abolished most of their seniority rights and junked the prior management's union contract, which had two years to run.

Romney's record in Massachusetts also loses some its luster upon closer inspection. While his campaign this week boasted of creating 57,600 jobs during Romney's tenure from 2003 to 2007, Northeastern University economist Andrew Sum pointed out that Massachusetts' performance lagged well behind the national average. As Reuters reported:

"The state lagged the U.S. average during that period in job creation, economic growth and wage increases.
As a strict labor market economist looking at the record, Massachusetts did very poorly during the Romney years, he [Sum] said. "On every measure you've got, the state was a substantial under-performer."

During that bitter Michigan primary struggle with John McCain in January, the self-styled "guy from Detroit" Mitt Romney pompously declared:

"This state needs someone who cares about this state more than one day a year."

Truer words were never spoken. But for his Republican backers, that one day when Mitt Romney is appropriately given the feudalism-era throwback title of "car czar" is all they need. While President Bush appears poised to reverse course and use Treasury funds to throw Detroit a lifeline, most in the GOP seem content to enter what Dick Cheney yesterday described as "Herbert Hoover" time.


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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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