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Commentary: Debating Autos

The second presidential debate is over, and I’m pretty sure that if you polled Michigan voters and asked, simply, “who won last night?” there wouldn’t be any doubt of their answer.

It would be Justin Verlander, who last night pitched the Detroit Tigers to within one game of the World Series.

Indeed, I’d bet that more people were following their victory over the hated Yankees than were watching the confrontation in New York between the major presidential candidates.

Which is too bad, for a number of reasons. Detroit and the auto industry figured prominently in this debate, right from the start.

The first question was from a college student worried about being able to get a good job after he graduated, which is something on the mind of just about every college student I know.

The President told him that his number one priority was “to build manufacturing jobs in this country again.”  And he added, “You know, when Governor Romney said we should let Detroit go bankrupt, I said, we’re going to bet on American workers and the American auto industry, and it’s come surging back. I want to do that in industries, not just in Detroit but all across the country.”

Politically, that was a smart move on the President’s part. There is broad agreement on two things: One, that the stubbornly weak economy is his biggest weakness, and two, that the successful auto bailout is perhaps his biggest success.

Mitt Romney did indeed oppose the bailout, and is vulnerable on that score. But he doesn’t seem to have learned a fundamental axiom of politics: When you are in a hole, stop digging.

Once again, Romney stubbornly tried to justify his position, saying, “He said that I said we should take Detroit bankrupt, and that’s right.” To which the President responded:

“Governor Romney wanted to take them into bankruptcy without providing them any way to stay open, and we would have lost a million jobs. Don’t take my word for it; take the executives at GM and Chrysler, some of whom are Republicans. They’ll tell you his plan wasn’t going to work.”

There is plenty that Romney could have said to this. For example, new autoworkers are making less than 30,000 a year, not enough to afford the new cars they are making, let alone a house. Nor have all the president’s automotive policies been successful. The Obama administration awarded a quarter of a billion dollar grant to a Michigan firm called A123 Systems, to make advanced batteries. Yesterday, it filed for bankruptcy, and plans to liquidate its assets, after losing nearly a billion dollars.

But Romney didn’t mention any of that, just stubbornly insisted that he was right in the one area where the facts clearly show he was wrong. When Romney first opposed lending the automakers billions to stay afloat, the President said, “These are not ordinary circumstances. Allowing the U.S. auto industry to collapse is not a responsible course of action.”

But the President who said those words was not Barack Obama, but Republican George Bush. The Republican nominee has been campaigning in Ohio this week. My guess is that he didn’t help himself with the autoworkers in Toledo and Lorain last night.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.