Mitt Romney was for the auto bailout before he was against it. So was Paul Ryan.
Now that President Obama is campaigning as the savior of General Motors and Chrysler, the Republicans' reversals on the auto bailout show the perils of flip-flopping -- and threaten to make Romney the new John Kerry.
Throughout this year's convention and on the campaign trail in Ohio, Obama and allies have used GM and Chrysler as a weapon against Romney. "When my opponent said we should just 'let Detroit go bankrupt,' " Obama said in Bowling Green last week, "that would have meant walking away from an industry that supports one in eight Ohio jobs ... So when he said that, I said, 'No, I'm going to bet on America; I'm betting on American workers. I'm betting on American industry.' And today, the American auto industry has come roaring back with nearly 250,000 new jobs."
This is a winning line for Obama. When I asked longtime Detroit resident John Karski about the bailouts on Sunday, Karski was surprised that there's any debate about them. "We'd be done without it," Karski told me over pastries and coffee after Mass at St. Raymond in Detroit. "And you've got Romney saying, 'Let them go bankrupt.' And he's from here? Come on."
More importantly, 54 percent of Ohioans support the auto bailout, according to a Washington Post poll, and the latest Wall Street Journal poll showed Obama leading Romney by 8 points.
Trouble is, Obama's attack is highly misleading.
"Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" was the headline of an op-ed by Romney in the New York Times on Nov. 18, 2008. But Romney wasn't saying "Let GM and Chrysler go out of business," as Democrats constantly imply. Romney's op-ed called for "a managed bankruptcy" of GM and Chrysler, paired with "government help" in the form of taxpayer-backed loan guarantees.
President-elect Obama must have read the Times that day, because in 2009, he put GM and Chrysler through managed bankruptcies, gave them federal aid and saved the companies -- broadly what Romney had advocated.
What about that heartless capitalist Ayn Rand disciple Paul Ryan? Ryan voted aye when Congress tried to bail out the automakers in late 2008, and he also fought for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which George W. Bush and Obama ultimately used to save the companies.
So Romney and Ryan in late 2008 both explicitly supported federal bailouts of GM and Chrysler. How can Obama now use the bailouts as a wedge issue? Because Romney and Ryan have started hiding from their original positions, at times trying to use the bailouts against Obama.
The GOP nominees are often nuanced in their attacks on Obama -- criticizing the cronyism involved, or the timing of the bailout funds -- and some of their arguments are valid. But this is presidential politics. On a big issue, you're either for it or against it. Romney and Ryan were for it. Now they're against it.
This makes it harder for them to fight back against Obama's attacks. When Obama trots out the "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" line, what is Romney to do? If he responds at all, he's forced to play John Kerry-circa-2004, with Detroit as the new Iraq.
Kerry's Iraq flip-flop famously climaxed in his explanation for opposing an $87 billion appropriation for the war: "I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it."
Kerry's trouble also began with a New York Times op-ed. Kerry called on Bush to get congressional approval to use force against Iraq. Bush got it, with Kerry's vote. Kerry said Bush "must seek full enforcement of the existing cease-fire agreement from the United Nations Security Council." Bush sought it. Kerry favored issuing an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein. The ultimatum was issued.
Then Kerry went on, writing: "If Saddam Hussein is unwilling to bend to the international community's already existing order, then he will have invited enforcement, even if that enforcement is mostly at the hands of the United States, a right we retain even if the Security Council fails to act."
As with Romney and Obama on Detroit, Bush largely followed what Kerry proposed on Iraq.
But during the 2004 Democratic primary, Kerry tacked leftward, saying Bush "rushed to war against our warnings." Come the general election, Kerry tried to hedge: "I might have gone to war but not the way the president did."
Romney and Ryan would have bailed out Detroit, but not the way the president did. Ask President Kerry how that argument worked for him.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.