Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 2, 2012

Romney and his changing view of auto industry


---- — Five years ago, before anyone imagined General Motors and Chrysler would soon nearly go out of existence, I sat down for a long interview with Mitt Romney.

He was just launching his first run for the presidency. Though he'd grown up in Michigan, the son of a famous governor who had been chairman of American Motors, he hadn't lived here since 1965.

What he said then might surprise both supporters and opponents today. When I asked what a Romney administration would do for this region, he said "I care very deeply about the manufacturing base of this country, and I believe the automotive industry is an important contributor to our vitality nationally.

"I want to see the domestic automobile manufacturers succeed. So I look for ways to make that possible and (ways) the government can help make that possible."

Though the automakers were a year and a half from pleading for help, all were losing money.

Their market share had been plummeting for decades. When the crisis hit, however, Mitt Romney, like many Republicans, opposed what came to be known as the "bailouts." What did he mean by government helping the auto industry? Back then, he had a different path in mind. "I think we should be investing more in basic science and technology. I was distressed that Toyota was moving ahead in hybrid technology," he said.

Mr. Romney, then at least, felt this was somewhere where the government should be spending more, not less. "We (need to) invest in these areas to advance learning, which ultimately propels the private sector. We do very little in the area of energy, power generation, material science. We need to do more."

Those aren't sentiments he has voiced often on the campaign trail this year. In fairness, the big picture was considerably different five years ago. The U.S. budget deficit was $179 billion, less than a fifth of what it is today. The Great Recession had yet to begin.

Romney, fighting for a nomination he would ultimately lose to John McCain, had a difficult task. He had to distinguish himself from the unpopular administration of his fellow Republican, George W. Bush, while reassuring conservatives, who were suspicious of his core beliefs, that he was one of them.

Whether you agreed with him or not, it was evident to me that Mr. Romney did care about the auto industry. He had grown up in it, after all. He had been 9 years old when his father's company brought out the Rambler, America's first successful compact car.

Lynn Keenan, his older sister, told me Mitt had been a car buff since he was 4 years old. Five years ago, while no one suspected the extent of the crisis facing the entire industry, it was clear American cars still faced immense competitive pressures.

What would a President Romney do about that?

"I would encourage more fuel efficiency, whether that is gasoline efficiency, whether that's hybrids, whether that's biodiesel, liquid coal ...

"I don't care which technology, because I am not a technologist. I care about the development of fuels on which our industry can reasonably rely over a long period of time," he said.

He also touted "the need to become energy independent. We need to have a strategy for becoming independent that does not disadvantage the domestic manufacturers as CAFÉ does," he said, meaning the Washington-mandated fuel economy standards.

OK, but how do you get there? He admitted he didn't know, but said he thought doing this may be the only way the car companies could succeed, long term.

That success was crucial, he added: "You can't have the heart of our manufacturing economy in distress and be a viable competitor."

Whether he has since come up with a comprehensive strategy to help the domestic auto industry isn't clear. During this year's Michigan primary campaign, Romney seemed mainly concerned to justify opposing bailouts which most Michigan residents and auto executives today feel was extremely successful.

Today, the car companies are back on their feet, making billions, and have paid back billions of the government loans. When Mitt Romney opposed the bailout (actually started by President Bush in 2008) some said he was betraying the legacy of his father, who made the former American Motors Corporation as successful as it had ever been before it was absorbed by Chrysler in 1987.

But while nobody can know for sure, my guess is that George Romney, who died in 1995, would have been right there with his son. Thirty years ago this summer, I sat in the elder Mr. Romney's den, a room decorated with framed pictures from his auto industry days.

George Romney was none too complimentary of the Big Three automakers or their unions. He thought the pattern of the automakers rolling over and passing inflationary contract settlements on to the consumers was a form of long-term suicide.

I doubt he would have approved of government bailouts.

"David Halberstam told me, 'you can't be right too soon,'" the elder Romney told me. This fall, his son will have the chance his father never did, a chance to persuade America that his solutions are right, and that his time has come.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio's senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.