As Mitt Romney begins his crucial campaign to win Michigan, his rhetoric about the auto industry is nostalgic and hopeful -- but also somber and even a bit sad.
"How in the world did an industry and its leaders and its unions get in such a fix that they lost jobs, that they lost their future?” Romney says in a new TV ad. “President Obama did all these things that liberals have wanted to do for years. The fact that you’ve got millions of Americans out of work, home values collapsing, people here in Detroit are distressed.”
He added in a recent Detroit News op-ed: "The indisputable good news is that Chrysler and General Motors are still in business. The equally indisputable bad news is that all the defects in President Obama's management of the American economy are evident in what he did."
Even days after Obama won the White House, Romney penned a now-often quoted New York Times op-ed -- entitled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" -- that began:
If General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye. It won’t go overnight, but its demise will be virtually guaranteed.
Yet it's striking to compare this tone from Romney from the rhetoric he used when he was campaigning in Michigan's Republican primary four years ago. Back then, before the economic collapse, his message was largely this: The U.S. auto industry -- with Washington's help -- was ready to bounce back.
And instead of somber, the rhetoric was enthusiastic and optimistic.
"Now I know that there are some people who don't think that there's a future for the domestic automobile industry," he said in a speech to the Detroit Economic Club one day before the Jan. 15, 2008 primary, which he won. "They think that the industry and its jobs are gone forever. And they're wrong."
That was while Romney was trying to draw a distinction with his then-chief rival, John McCain, who said in Jan. 2008: "I've got to give you some straight talk: Some of the jobs that have left the state of Michigan are not coming back. They are not. And I am sorry to tell you that."
So that’s largely why Romney, in that Detroit Economic speech, said: "If I am president, I will not rest until Michigan has come back."
He added in the speech: "The auto industry and all of its jobs do not have to be lost. And I am one man who will work to transform the industry and save those jobs."
Romney even said that Washington should play a role in assisting the auto industry. "I am not open to a bailout, but I am open to a workout. Washington should not be a benefactor, but it can and must be a partner."
He called for the federal government to invest in the industry. "If we're going to be the world's greatest economic power, we also have to invest in the future," he said in the address. "It's time for us to be bold. I will make a five-fold increase -- from $4 billion to $20 billion -- in our national investment in energy research, fuel technology, materials science, and automotive technology. Let's invest in our future."
And he called for cooperation with autoworker unions. "I actually believe that the union vote is very important to Republicans," he told FOX's Neil Cavuto a day before the 2008 Michigan primary, adding: "We're in this together. The auto industry is going to succeed or fail. And if it fails, it's going to hurt not just the shareholders, but all the employees."
Four years later? The tone is far different, especially as it pertains to federal assistance and unions.
"The dream of the Motor City is and always has been one of ideas, innovation, enterprise, and opportunity," he stated in his recent Detroit News op-ed. "It started with Henry Ford and continued with visionaries like William Durant, Walter Chrysler, and the Dodge Brothers. These giants never envisioned a role for government in their business, but relied on the hard work and commitment of private individuals."
A Romney campaign official tells First Read that the former Massachusetts governor continues to support federal investment for industry research and development, as he did in that Nov. 2008 New York Times op-ed. "He did not, and does not, support direct government handouts to companies – whether in the form of venture capital investments like the one given to Solyndra, or bailouts like the one given to GM and Chrysler," the official says. "As history has shown, that sort of activity is a recipe for wasting billions of dollars of taxpayer money."
Romney's rhetoric toward unions is much different, too. The Romney campaign today issued this press release: "Unlike Obama, Romney will stand up to Big Labor."
The same official says Romney also "believes that it is important for unions and management to work together. That is why he supports labor law reforms that will take power from union bosses who have no interest in a constructive relationship with management, and return it to workers who work closely with management every day and have an equal stake in seeing their companies succeed."