by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
The once-unpopular bailout of the U.S. auto industry is playing a central role in the messaging of the Democratic Party’s convention in Charlotte, N.C.
Speaker after speaker on the convention’s first night Tuesday credited President Obama with “saving” the American auto industry.
The remarks were intended to draw a sharp contrast with Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s opposition to the $80 billion that was loaned to General Motors and Chrysler in 2008 and 2009.
“My friends, there is a true choice in this election…Barack Obama saved the American auto industry. Mitt Romney saved on his taxes,” former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) said in a speech that brought Democratic delegates to their feet.
Democrats have worked for months to turn the loans to the U.S. auto companies into a political winner for Obama. The bailouts were started under former President George W. Bush, but on the first night of the Democratic convention, the auto loans were the one issue where the former president’s name was verboten.
Romney campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg dismissed the remarks by the Democratic speakers on Tuesday as “more false, negative attacks designed to cover up President Obama’s failed record of high unemployment, falling incomes and out-of-control spending and debt.”
She repeated the GOP nominee’s argument that the president ultimately followed his advice that the auto companies be placed into a “managed bankruptcy” when he placed conditions on the loans, including insisting on the removal of the president of General Motors.
“Mitt Romney proposed the right course for the automakers — a structured bankruptcy process to allow them to emerge as sustainable and profitable enterprises,” Henneberg said Wednesday in a statement provided to The Hill. “We will continue to talk about how Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will get our economy moving again and provide the environment for the American auto industry to thrive.”
Democrats have argued that only the federal government had enough capital in the economic panic of 2008 to float the auto industry a loan. The party’s speakers on Tuesday took turns excoriating Romney, frequently mentioning a 2008 op-ed he wrote in The New York Times, titled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”
They also used the bailout to cast Obama as more in tune with the concerns of American workers.
Strickland’s speech was peppered with tales of autoworkers in Ohio whom he said were still on the job because President Obama had the “courage” to help the auto industry.
“Ina Sidney is a grandmother who lost her ability to provide for her family when they closed down the auto plant in Perrysburg, Ohio,” Strickland said. “Ina says thanks to Barack Obama for having the courage to back an industry that others had given up on. She’s an autoworker and a breadwinner once again.”
Other Democratic speakers quickly got in on the act.
“This is the president who saved the American auto industry from extinction, the American financial industry from self-destruction and the American economy from depression,” Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) said in a flourish about reasons Democrats should “stand up” for Obama.
Even first lady Michelle Obama, who focused mostly on personal stories about her husband that she said illustrated his values, referenced the auto bailout in her widely praised speech.
“At the end of the day, when it comes time to make that decision, as president, all you have to guide you are your values, and your vision, and the life experiences that make you who you are,” the first lady said. “That’s why he cut taxes for working families and small businesses and fought to get the auto industry back on its feet.”
Republican political strategist Ron Bonjean told The Hill on Wednesay that the Democratic focus on the auto bailouts on the first night of their convention was not surprising. But Bonjean said the Obama campaign’s chest-thumping on the auto bailout missed the point of the election.
“The constant reminder of the auto bailout is targeted at employees and union workers in key battleground states like Ohio,” Bonjean, a former chief of staff of the Senate Republican Conference, said. “Many of these states are led by Republican governors that have put policies in place to reduce unemployment, but need a president who will work with them for long-term stability.”
Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons countered that the auto bailout “identified the difference between the approaches of President Obama and Mitt Romney better than anything else since Mitt Romney’s advice was to ‘Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.'”
“The auto bailout is an unqualified success for this presidency,” he said. “If you live in the industrial Midwest … the fact that those jobs and companies have been saved is one of the president’s biggest assets.”
Simmons said he expected the Democratic focus on the auto bailouts to continue through the remainder of the Democratic convention and beyond.
“It’s something I think you’ll hear frequently throughout the course of the next couple of months,” he said.
A fact-checking email on the Democratic speeches distributed Wednesday morning by the Republican National Committee omitted the remarks about the auto bailout entirely. Instead, the RNC’s pushback focused on the economy, healthcare and comments made by Democrats about Romney’s tenure as Massachusetts governor.
The GOP’s email did whack Obama, however, for racking up “the largest deficits in U.S. history.”