Auto toxin


In the fi­nal few days of the pres­i­den­tial con­test, Mitt Rom­ney ev­i­dently rec­og­nizes that his op­po­si­tion to the fed­eral res­cue of Gen­eral Mo­tors and Chrysler is costing him voter sup­port he needs in Ohio and Mich­i­gan. So the Re­pub­li­can nom­i­nee is con­duct­ing an ex­er­cise in de­cep­tion about auto-in­dus­try is­sues that is re­mark­able even by the stan­dards of his cam­paign.

At an ap­pear­ance last week in De­fi­ance, Mr. Rom­ney an­nounced that “Jeep, now owned by the Ital­ians, is think­ing of mov­ing all pro­duc­tion to China.” That as­ser­tion was based on an am­big­u­ously worded news re­port.

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Chrysler, which owns Jeep and in which the Ital­ian auto­maker Fiat has a ma­jor­ity stake, quickly de­nied the re­port. A com­pany spokes­man said Mr. Rom­ney’s rhe­tor­i­cal leap “would be dif­fi­cult even for pro­fes­sional cir­cus ac­ro­bats.” But the Rom­ney cam­paign launched an ad in Ohio that claimed that Pres­i­dent Obama, who pre­sided over the auto bail­out, “sold Chrysler to Ital­ians who are go­ing to build Jeeps in China.”

Chrysler CEO Ser­gio Mar­chionne re­moved all doubt about his com­pany’s in­ten­tions this week in an email to em­ploy­ees: “Jeep pro­duc­tion will not be moved from the United States to China,” he said. “Jeep as­sem­bly lines will re­main in op­er­a­tion in the United States and will con­sti­tute the back­bone of the brand. It is in­ac­cu­rate to sug­gest any­thing dif­fer­ent.”

He ac­knowl­edged that Chrysler in­tends “to re­turn Jeep pro­duc­tion to China, the world’s larg­est auto mar­ket, in or­der to sat­isfy lo­cal mar­ket de­mand, which would not oth­er­wise be ac­ces­sible.” The com­pany also wants to avoid heavy im­port du­ties. But that’s a long way from Mr. Rom­ney’s in­sin­u­a­tion that the auto­maker is ship­ping jobs from Toledo to China.

Mr. Mar­chionne noted that Chrysler is in­vest­ing $500 mil­lion in its Toledo as­sem­bly com­plex and plans to add 1,100 jobs there by next year, largely to build a suc­ces­sor to the Jeep Lib­erty sport-util­ity ve­hi­cle. He vowed “that the iconic Wran­gler name­plate, cur­rently pro­duced in our Toledo, Ohio, plant, will never see full pro­duc­tion out­side the United States.”

Regard­less, a new ra­dio ad for the Rom­ney cam­paign that has got­ten heavy play in Toledo asks whether the Pres­i­dent bailed out the do­mes­tic auto in­dus­try for “Ohio — or China?” It asks: “What hap­pened to the prom­ises made to au­to­work­ers in Toledo and through­out Ohio — the same hard-work­ing men and women who were told that Obama’s auto bail­out would help them?”

The new ad also as­sails the other bailed-out auto­maker by claim­ing that “un­der Pres­i­dent Obama, GM cut 15,000 Amer­i­can jobs, but they are plan­ning to dou­ble the num­ber of cars built in China, which means 15,000 more jobs for China.” A GM spokes­man told the Detroit Free Press that “we’ve clearly en­tered some par­al­lel uni­verse dur­ing these last few days ... No amount of cam­paign pol­i­tics at its cyn­i­cal worst will di­min­ish our record of cre­at­ing jobs in the U.S. and re­pa­tri­at­ing prof­its back to this coun­try.”

Mr. Rom­ney, who has changed po­si­tions on too many other is­sues to count, clings to his in­sis­tence that Mr. Obama should not have in­vested tax­payer money in help­ing Chrysler and GM emerge from a man­aged bank­ruptcy. He says he would have been will­ing to pro­vide fed­eral “guar­an­tees” of pri­vate in­vest­ment in the trou­bled auto­makers.

Steven Rat­tner, the Pres­i­dent’s chief ad­viser on the auto bail­out, told The Blade’s ed­i­to­rial page this week that “there was no pri­vate money” on of­fer dur­ing the depths of the Great Re­ces­sion to pre­serve ei­ther car com­pany. He added that Re­pub­li­can Pres­i­dent George W. Bush “un­der­stood that” and launched the bail­out pro­cess as a re­sult.

Mr. Rat­tner noted that the bail­out was po­lit­i­cally un­pop­u­lar at the time, and that there was no guar­an­tee it would work. But he said the GM job cuts cited in the Rom­ney ad oc­curred be­fore the bail­out, and since then the auto sec­tor has been re­spon­si­ble for 20 per­cent of the na­tion’s job growth. With­out it, he added, both auto­makers would have col­lapsed.

The sub­se­quent suc­cess of both GM and Chrysler has made the fed­eral res­cue “a real win-win,” Mr. Rat­tner said. Polls sug­gest that vot­ers, es­pe­cially in Ohio and Mich­i­gan, agree.

Mr. Rom­ney claims to have a “plan to help the auto in­dus­try,” which he does not de­tail. He plays up his Detroit roots, re­mind­ing vot­ers that his father was not only a beloved gov­er­nor of Mich­i­gan, but also the chief ex­ec­u­tive of a Detroit auto­maker.

But Mr. Rom­ney’s own words make clear he is no friend of the auto in­dus­try, on which Ohio re­lies for one of ev­ery eight jobs. Vot­ers in Ohio and Mich­i­gan — and the na­tion — need to re­mem­ber that.