Will the real Mitt stand up?

The disturbing aspect of Mitt Romney’s take on the American auto industry is not his brazenness in claiming credit for the miraculous recovery of General Motors and Chrysler — that’s politics, folks — but his lack of faith in arguably the single-most important contributor to this nation’s economic well-being.

And it is this lack of faith, as opposed to his infamous “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” opinion piece in 2009 in the New York Times, that should prompt auto communities such as the Mahoning Valley to take a questioning look at the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

The Valley has lived through the good times and the bad of the American auto industry, but through it all most of us have never doubted the commitment of management and labor to the Made in the USA brand.

Not so, Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts and son of the late George Romney, who served as president of the now defunct American Motors and as governor of Michigan.

Managed bankruptcy

When the GOP challenger to President Barack Obama campaigns in America’s auto communities, he makes it a point to claim “a lot of credit” for the recent successes of GM and Chrysler. Indeed, he contends that Democrat Obama followed his lead when he ushered the companies through a managed bankruptcy soon after taking office.

“I pushed the idea of a managed bankruptcy, and finally when that was done, and help was given, the companies got back on their feet,” the Associated Press quoted Romney as telling a Cleveland television station. “So, I’ll take a lot of credit for the fact that this industry has come back.”

But while Romney’s 2009 opinion piece in the Times has attracted attention because he came out against a federal government bailout of the automakers, what hasn’t grabbed the spotlight was his view of the Big Three.

Here are the key paragraphs of his article:

“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.

“Without that bailout, Detroit will need to drastically restructure itself. With it, the automaker will stay the course — the suicidal course of declining market shares, insurmountable labor and retiree burdens, technological atrophy, product inferiority and never-ending job losses. Detroit needs a turnaround, not a check.”

That negative view stands in sharp contrast to President Obama’s attitude about the industry as he pushed for the federal bailout of GM and Chrysler. Ford ultimately decided against taking the federal money.

Romney was dead wrong about the Big Three in 2009; what he wrote certainly did not reflect reality.

Reality in the Valley

Had Romney come to the Mahoning Valley three years ago and visited GM’s Lordstown assembly complex, he would not have used the words “technological atrophy” and “product inferiority.” And, he certainly wouldn’t have found “insurmountable labor and retiree burdens.” To be sure, labor costs were a problem, but to suggest that nothing was being done about them is either to be ignorant about the steps taken in national and local labor contracts, or to turn a blind eye to the changes just to make a political point.

Had Romney come to the Valley in 2009, he could have met with former Republican governors Bob Taft and George V. Voinovich, who were effusive in their praise of labor and management at the Lordstown plant.

The successes of the Chevrolet Cavalier, Cobalt and now the Cruze — all Lordstown products — is the story of the new and improved American automobile industry.

Romney was also wrong in believing that without the federal bailout the automakers would have been able to secure money from the private sector to help them emerge from bankruptcy.

As Dr. David Cole, a nationally recognized expert on the auto industry, put it: “The auto companies would not have made it without government bailout. It was the creditor of last resort.”

So, while the GOP presidential contender portrays himself as the architect of the turnaround, his contention that the “demise” of GM and Chrysler is “virtually guaranteed” because they were bailed out to the tune of $24.9 billion goes to the heart of his credibility on this issue.

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