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Joan Vennochi

Romney takes auto industry for a ride

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / November 20, 2008
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IF THE auto industry could reinvent itself as quickly as Mitt Romney, it wouldn't need a bailout.

Let Detroit go bankrupt, Romney opined in yesterday's New York Times; if automakers get the rescue package they want, they will stay "the suicidal course of declining market shares, insurmountable labor and retiree burdens, technology atrophy, product inferiority and never-ending job losses."

Just last January, Romney won Michigan's Republican primary by telling autoworkers what they wanted to hear. Somewhere, John McCain must be choking on the latest opportunistic words from his ex-rival.

During their showdown last winter, Michigan's native son lambasted McCain for truthfully informing autoworkers their jobs aren't "coming back." The former Massachusetts governor pledged to fight for every job, promising primary voters, "If I am president of the United States, I will not rest until Michigan is back."

In speeches across the state, Romney also blamed Washington for Detroit's woes. "Look at Washington. What have they done to help the domestic auto industry? Look, you can't keep on throwing anvils at Michigan and the auto industry and then say, 'How come they are not swimming well?' " he declared.

McCain recovered from the Michigan loss and went on to win his party's nomination. But, now that McCain lost to Democrat Barack Obama, Romney and others are already jockeying for position in the 2012 GOP presidential contest.

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is trying to capitalize on her celebrity as McCain's running mate. But first, she must overcome political damage from two sources: her own campaign performance; and anonymous quotes calling her a "whack job" and "diva." Romney loyalists denied reports they were behind the most unflattering Palin assessments.

Meanwhile, Romney has problems and rivals of his own.

In his new book, "Do The Right Thing," Mike Huckabee, who also ran for the Republican nomination in 2008, rips Romney as a flip-flopper who switched positions on abortion, gay rights, gun control, and campaign finance reform. The former Arkansas governor also writes that Romney's record was "anything but conservative until he changed all the light bulbs in his chandelier in time to run for president."

Indeed, Romney was never able to grasp the differences between corporate and political turnarounds.

In the private sector, dramatic retooling is key to survival. As a businessman, Romney understood how to do that. His turnaround of the Salt Lake City Olympics is often cited as an example.

In the public sector, seismic shifts in position create suspicion and undercut credibility. As a politician, Romney continues to lose his.

If politicians never change their thinking, they risk turning into George W. Bush. Stubbornness will forever define his presidency. But if the changes of heart are too extreme and obviously calculated, they end up looking like Romney. As a candidate, he had no discernible political core. Over the course of the presidential campaign, McCain lost much of his own core, too.

Both Romney and McCain sold their souls to the political right. However, in Romney's case, his positioning on social issues began to feel less important against the backdrop of the current economic crisis. As the economic news worsened during the final weeks of the presidential campaign, Romney's expertise on fiscal matters was held out as a reason why he would have been the better choice for the Republican ticket.

Romney's op-ed column reaffirms McCain's decision to look elsewhere for a running mate. McCain knew Romney would always be a rival, never a teammate. His ambition is too naked. His finger is always in the air, not just testing the political winds but succumbing to them at first gust.

This is a presidential candidate who cast himself as the auto workers' champion. "I hear people say, 'It's gone, those jobs are gone, transportation's gone, it's not coming back.' I'm going to fight for every single job. I'm going to rebuild the industry. I'm going to take burdens off the back of the auto industry," Romney said in January.

Back then, he never mentioned bankruptcy as the way to do it.

Never underestimate Romney's willingness to shamelessly reverse direction, to get where he wants to go.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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