Revisiting Romney's vision for the auto industry


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

He was launching his first run for the presidency. Though he'd grown up in Michigan, the son of a former 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."

He added: "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 domestic automakers were a year and a half from pleading for bailouts, all were losing money.

Their market share had been plummeting for decades. When the crisis hit, however, Mr. Romney, like many other Republicans, opposed what came to be known as bailouts.

So what did he mean by government helping the auto industry? Then, he had a different path in mind.

"I think we should be investing more in basic science and technology," he said. "I was distressed that Toyota was moving ahead in hybrid technology."

He paused. "Where we do invest in technology, we lead the world," he said, citing defense, space, and health-related areas.

Mr. Romney, at least then, felt this was 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," he said. "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.

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

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

Lynn Keenan, his older sister, told me Mr. Romney 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 industry, it was clear that American cars still faced immense competitive pressures.

What would a President Romney do about that? "I would encourage more fuel efficiency," he said, "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," he said. "I care about the development of fuels on which our industry can reasonably rely over a long period of time."

He also spoke, as virtually all candidates do, of "the need to become energy independent. We need to have a strategy for becoming independent that does not disadvantage the domestic manufacturers as CAFE does," he said, meaning the Washington-mandated auto fuel-economy standards.

OK, but how do you get there? He admitted he didn't know. But he said he thought it might be the only way car companies could succeed over the 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 come up with a comprehensive strategy to help the domestic auto industry isn't clear. During his primary campaign this winter, Mr. Romney seemed mainly concerned with justifying his opposition to the auto bailout, which most Michigan residents and auto executives feel was successful.

Today, car companies are back on their feet, making billions of dollars. They have paid back billions of dollars in government loans. When Mr. Romney opposed the bailout -- actually started by President George W. Bush in 2008 -- some said he was betraying the legacy of his father, who made the former American Motors Corp. as successful as it had ever been before it was acquired by Chrysler in 1987.

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, decorated with framed pictures from his auto industry days.

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

"[Journalist] David Halberstam told me, 'You can't be right too soon,'" the elder Romney said with a laugh.

This fall, his son will have the chance his father never did: to persuade America that his solutions are right, and that his time has come.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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