Why Romney’s Inaccurate Auto Ad May Be Smart Politics

A deceptive ad about the 2009 auto bailout from Mitt Romney is taking center stage in the final week before the election.

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JIM WATSON / AFP / GettyImages

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney delivers remarks at a victory rally in Lebanon, Ohio, on Oct. 13, 2012

With one week to Election Day, the damage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy has scaled back the final sprint of campaign activity to a crawl. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney made a political calculation to avoid seeming unduly political, though Romney crept up to the line with his Tuesday-morning event in Ohio, a campaign gathering masquerading as a storm-relief effort. But this marathon campaign is drawing to a close, and while the storm may have elbowed the election out of the minds of voters, something must fill the political-news vacuum. Which is why this deceptive ad from Mitt Romney is taking center stage in the final week before Nov. 6:

The motivation behind the ad is obvious. The two candidates’ divergent positions on the 2009 auto bailout has hampered Romney in Ohio, the most important state on the electoral map. Obama’s decision to extend government funds to GM and Chrysler kept the American auto industry afloat, propping up Ohio’s economy in the process; unemployment there fell from 10.6% in January 2010 to 7% in September, well below the national average. Ohio Republicans argue that this has little to do with Obama’s auto policy, instead assigning credit to the state’s Republican governor, John Kasich. But there is little question that the bailout has boosted Obama. Ohioans have a brighter outlook on the state’s fortunes: whereas 54% in a TIME survey last week said the U.S. was on the wrong track, 51% say Ohio’s forecast is improving. In the bailout, Obama has a handy cudgel to whack Romney with while claiming the credit for himself. As a result, he has retained strong support among white blue-collar workers, a cohort with whom he is struggling elsewhere. “There’s no question that the automobile issue has probably cut into some traditional support we’d be running away with,” Bob Bennett, the chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, told me recently. 

Romney’s new ad, which Democratic sources say has about $100,000 behind it, is part of a sweeping effort to push back. The campaign has pointed to Delphi Corp., an auto-parts supplier whose 20,000 or so nonunion workers saw their pensions cut after the bailout, as an example of the decision’s collateral damage as well as Obama’s purported preference for union workers. But the new ad, which is running in the auto-centered Toledo and Youngstown media markets, is part of a stepped-up campaign to cut into Obama’s advantage on the auto issue. It was released quietly, without the usual accompanying press release. That’s probably because Romney’s campaign advisers knew it would stir up a storm.

The ad is unequivocally misleading, a mashup of unsupported assertions and deceptive suggestions. “Obama took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy and sold Chrysler to Italians, who are going to build Jeeps in China,” the ad says as images flash of cars being flattened. This line is embedded with subtext: that Obama is selling off a treasured American corporation; that Ohio jobs may be fleeing as a result; and that they will resurface in China, a byword for the argument that Obama’s weak leadership has cost the U.S. economy. As political rhetoric, which is often measured by its ability to deceive an audience without crossing over into outright falsehood, it’s wondrous stuff. It begs the viewer to make false inferences.

But it isn’t true. Chrysler has said it may build additional Jeeps in China to meet demand there but has no intention of shifting production out of the U.S. A Chrysler spokesman called claims to the contrary “a leap that would be difficult even for professional circus acrobats.” News and fact-checking outlets have widely debunked the suggestion: Politifact awarded it a “Pants on Fire,” and Factcheck.org and the New York Times called it “misleading.” Romney’s advisers dispute that characterization. But Romney himself told a crowd in Defiance, Ohio, last week that he “saw a story” suggesting that “one of the great manufacturers in this state, Jeep, now owned by the Italians, is thinking of moving all production to China.” Which is wrong.

If the ad is clearly misleading from a factual perspective, it may still help Romney. Throughout the election cycle, Romney’s advisers — and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Obama’s — have been guided by the belief that they can peddle falsehoods with impunity, because a tribal electorate won’t punish them for doing so. “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,” Romney pollster Neil Newhouse said.

Perhaps Romney is fuming about the way his own position on the auto bailout has been mischaracterized by both the Obama campaign and the press. Obama had reduced Romney’s position to a devastating headline, which sat atop a November 2008 op-ed in the New York Times: “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” That headline is the greatest gift the Times has given to Obama. The line did not appear in the op-ed itself.

The second presidential debate offered a glimpse of Romney’s frustration at having his position caricatured by the President. In the very first question of that town-hall forum, Obama offered his winning juxtaposition: “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.” Here’s Romney’s response:

One thing that the President said, which I want to make sure that we understand, he said that I said we should take Detroit bankrupt. And that’s right. My plan was to have the company go through bankruptcy like 7-Eleven did and Macy’s and Continental Airlines and come out stronger.

And I know he keeps saying, You want to take Detroit bankrupt. Well, the President took Detroit bankrupt. You took General Motors bankrupt. You took Chrysler bankrupt. So when you say that I wanted to take the auto industry bankrupt, you actually did.

And I think it’s important to know that that was a process that was necessary to get those companies back on their feet, so they could start hiring more people. That was precisely what I recommended and ultimately what happened.

There was a greater difference between the President’s position and that of his challenger than Romney’s remarks might suggest. Obama extended GM and Chrysler government loans as they navigated bankruptcy. Romney believed that a government bailout would be detrimental because it would remove the need to innovate and change. Instead he wanted a “managed bankruptcy” through which the automakers would be forced to restructure, with executive bloodletting and forced union concessions that would promote future competition. “The federal government should provide guarantees for post-bankruptcy financing and assure car buyers that their warranties are not at risk,” he wrote in the Times op-ed. (One problem: there is no evidence that there were private companies ready to intercede with funding even in light of such a “guarantee.”) The last line of Romney’s piece argues, “In a managed bankruptcy, the federal government would propel newly competitive and viable automakers, rather than seal their fate with a bailout check.” He may have been wrong. But it’s not as though he wanted the industry to wither and die.

What’s clear from Romney’s remarks at the Hofstra debate is that he thinks the Americans public doesn’t understand the issue — not even the fact that GM and Chrysler actually went through bankruptcy — and is therefore susceptible to Obama’s bumper-sticker attack. Romney may be right. Either way, the conviction helps explain why his campaign is intent on relitigating an issue it appears to have already lost in the court of public opinion. Falsehoods aside, if he can muddle Obama’s simple argument or peel away some independents with soft support for the President because of the bailout, Romney may just mitigate Obama’s advantage on the topic.