Michigan’s Republican presidential primary is Feb. 28, and right now Mitt Romney — despite being a home state boy with a father who ran American Motors — is fighting for his political life there, with Rick Santorum 10 points ahead in polls.


How did this happen? Blame a flip-flop that’s more egregious, but not as well-known, as the one on health care. In 2008, when he was running for president the first time, Romney was in the Republican mainstream when he wrote a blunt editorial in the New York Times called “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” He called for a “managed bankruptcy” and said that if the feds bailed the automakers out, their “demise will be virtually guaranteed.”


Back then, backing the auto industry probably looked like a loser issue: The clueless CEOs flew to Congressional hearings in private jets, and the public had little sympathy for the fine mess they’d made. Period polls found more than 60 percent of voters opposed the bailouts. The other GOPers were taking the same position. Who knew that Chrysler and General Motors would rebound and become profitable by the time Romney came back for Round Two? GM, for instance, had $500 million in net income in the fourth quarter of 2011, on revenue of $38 billion. The company made $7.6 billion in 2011, which Kelley Blue Book describes as "a strong year." GM made this money despite producing the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid Romney derided as “an idea whose time has not come.” Can you imagine the economy of Michigan without not only those two mega-corporations but all their satellite suppliers out of business?


And now Romney is flopping around like a bass on a dock, trying to justify his evolving position. I can’t imagine it playing well in Michigan. The candidate is trying to repair his image with a new Michigan commercial, “Growing Up,” that shows him driving around the old neighborhoods (right), blaming Obama for the plight of Detroit (illustrated with boarded-up houses) and making sure everybody knows he grew up there. There’s even a Rambler station wagon on view. “I want to make Michigan stronger and better,” he said. “Michigan’s been my home, and this is personal.”


Here's the commercial:



Unfortunately, letting GM and Chrysler go bankrupt is also personal for many Michigan voters. Romney realizes he can’t just try to change the subject, so he went on the offensive with another opinion piece — this time in the Detroit News last Tuesday. He’s saying that the Obama bailout was “crony capitalism” and that his managed bankruptcy option was the best course. But the financial community is pointing out that it wouldn’t have worked — because only the federal government was then in a position to lend GM and Chrysler the staggering amounts of money they needed to restructure.  


According to Steve Rattner, Obama’s auto czar, in an interview with Automotive News (subscription required), “If the advice that [Romney] had prescribed in November of 2008 had been followed by either the Bush administration or the Obama administration, we would have today no auto industry, no Detroit, no state of Michigan — no exaggeration.” As Rattner points out, the industry’s crisis straddled the transition from Bush to Obama, and both favored a bailout.


Romney is clearly trying to re-establish his bonafides as a Michigan “car guy.” He said in that Detroit News op-ed, “I am a son of Detroit. I was born in Harper Hospital and lived in the city until my family moved to Oakland County. I grew up drinking Vernors and watching ballgames at Michigan and Trumbull. Cars got in my bones early. And not just any cars, American cars.”


I had to look up what Vernors are (ginger ale; he’s a Mormon, remember?). And I scoured the Internet to discover that, unlike Rick Santorum (whose tax returns reveal that he drove an Audi A6 in 2008), Romney really does drive American — the family motor pool includes a 2005 Mustang, a 2007 and 2010 Cadillac SRXs, and a 2001 Chevy pickup. (I wonder which one Romney drove to Canada with the family dog strapped to the roof?)


The biggest flip-flop is Romney’s suggestion that Obama actually followed the advice of the sage from American Motors. Romney said during a business roundtable in Michigan, “The president finally came around to my own view that Detroit needed to go through managed bankruptcy, the auto companies needed to go through managed bankruptcy to shed their excess costs. And it took him six months to get there but he got to the same place that I had suggested.” No he didn’t. The federal bailout money is the key ingredient that Mitt’s plan left out.


Proof that Romney can talk out of both sides of his mouth on this issue came during his 2008 primary against John McCain. Romney went to Michigan and launched an attack after his rival said that lost car-making jobs weren’t coming back. “The question is, ‘Where is Washington,’” he said. Months later, after he was out of the race, he wrote that Times op-ed and said Washington had no role in the auto industry.


Today, Obama would beat Romney in Michigan, 48 to 40 percent, according to a Jan. 25 poll. And 65 percent of Michigan voters said in the most recent EPIC-MRA poll that they supported the bailout. Santorum has troubles in Michigan that go beyond owning that German-made Audi. He also opposed the auto bailouts, taking more or less the same stance as Romney — a managed bankruptcy. He claims in the video below that GM and Chrysler would have made out better under that scenario because the unions (always a good target) wouldn’t have gotten a piece of the company. But few serious analysts see how the companies would have gotten on their feet again without massive federal aid. This was a deep hole, folks.


Santorum’s saving grace is that his anti-bailout position is not as well-known as Romney’s. Santorum didn’t write any op-eds on the subject, and he’s not the son of a former Michigan governor and president of American Motors. Here's Santorum on the video record, echoing Mitt:



The bailout will probably be a bigger issue in the general election than it is in the primary. A new WDIV-TV and Detroit News survey actually finds that Republican voters in Michigan would give a slight edge (25 to 20 percent) to candidates who wanted to let the Big Three stew in their own juices. But facing all the voters is another story. Obama has the luxury of knowing that whoever wins in Michigan, he can go after the victor with both barrels for being willing to abandon the auto industry in its time of need.


Also on MNN: Mitt Romney's environmental record

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Romney's crash and burn on the auto bailout
The candidate who wanted Detroit to go bankrupt is now trying to win votes in Michigan — as the auto industry's recovery is front-page news. Santorum? He's go