Why the GOP Has Auto-Bailout Blues

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Rebecca Cook / Reuters

A Chrysler Group assembly worker works on the bottom chassis for Chrysler Jeeps, Grand Cherokees and Dodge Durangos at the Chrysler Jefferson North auto plant in Detroit, April 28, 2011.

It’s been clear for a while that the long Republican primary fight is damaging the GOP in ways that won’t be easily repaired before the fall election. Michael Scherer has nicely laid out the potential effect on the Hispanic vote. Rick Santorum’s derision of contraception and colleges must be reminding suburban women of what they dislike most about the GOP. And the constant crossfire of name-calling and attack ads has driven up the candidates’ disapproval ratings to painful levels.

Tuesday’s results in Michigan suggest there’s another issue to add to this collateral-damage list: the auto bailout. Perhaps the most striking fact from the exit polls there was the fact that four in ten primary voters said they supported the Obama Administration’s 2009 intervention to rescue the big automakers. I’m not aware of specific polling on that question in Ohio, the big prize in next week’s Super Tuesday extravaganza, but the number is likely to be about the same; Ohio is second only to Michigan in its economic reliance on car makers.

(MOREWill The Auto Bailout Factor in Michigan?)

Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum both opposed bailing out out Detroit. But the subject repeatedly came up in Michigan all the same, in part because Romney went so memorably out on a limb in his original bailout opposition, and in part because Santorum has labored to differentiate himself from Romney on the grounds he is a more principled bailout opponent.

While it’s hard to see bailout politics making a meaningful difference in the Romney-Santorum fight, it’s easy to see how Obama is benefiting from its central place in the national conversation. Both the Obama campaign and a super PAC supporting him ran ads in Michigan before the GOP primary, one reminding voters of Obama’s role in assisting the auto giants, and another slamming Romney for opposing the bailout. And now a major labor union is doing the same to Romney in Ohio. Back in Washington, on Tuesday, President Obama bragged about the bailout’s success in a speech to the United Auto Workers, which has nearly 100 chapters in Ohio.

(MOREObama Cashes in on Auto-Bailout Success, but Skepticism of Government Remains)

Before the auto giants began revving back up last year, Michigan was hurting so badly that it seemed capable of voting Republican for President for the first time since 1988. Not so much anymore. And Ohio? Obama is already holding his ground there against both Romney and Santorum (and has a solid lead if you discount one seemingly anomalous Fox News survey). The run-up to Super Tuesday will give the Obama team a few more days to, well, toot its own horn about the revival of American auto manufacturing–and to remind Rust Belt voters that Republicans opposed Obama’s intervention. Which is just one more mess the eventual Republican nominee will have to clean up once this long and ugly contest is finally finished.