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DN Editorial: Assessing the auto bailout - and the myths around it

'IT'S HALFTIME in America," the Super Bowl commercial featuring Clint Eastwood, was the latest in a long tradition of emotional appeals to patriotism routinely used to sell any number of products - in this case, Chryslers. In fact, the car company invoked the same theme last year, with homeboy Eminem praising Detroit as a city that had "been to hell and back."

'IT'S HALFTIME in America," the Super Bowl commercial featuring Clint Eastwood, was the latest in a long tradition of emotional appeals to patriotism routinely used to sell any number of products - in this case, Chryslers. In fact, the car company invoked the same theme last year, with homeboy Eminem praising Detroit as a city that had "been to hell and back."

So it says something important that Republican strategist Karl Rove assumed that the ad was meant to sell not cars, but a second term for Barack Obama, giving the president credit for the auto industry's remarkable turnaround and its boost to the U.S. to psyche.

Rove said he was "offended" by an ad in which Eastwood (himself a dyed-in-the-wool conservative Republican), said this: "It seems like we've lost our heart at times, when the fog of division, discord and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead. But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right, and acted as one ... Detroit's showing us it can be done."

Republicans obviously are doubling down on their insistence that the auto bailout was bad for the economy, all evidence to the contrary. Mitt Romney provided confirmation of this odd strategy in an op-ed in the Detroit News this week. Three years after predicting it would guarantee the demise of the industry, Romney called the bailout "crony capitalism" and a payoff to "union bosses."

So it's time for some actual facts: The $85 billion bailout was not Obama's idea - it was George W. Bush who put up the first $17 billion to rescue General Motors and Chrysler (and, with them, the hundreds of part-supply companies.) And the former president said just recently that he would "do it again."

Contrary to revisionist history, there really was no alternative. There were no banks able to provide the funds to keep the struggling companies afloat so they could restructure. Without government money, they would have been liquidated, not only resulting in the lost of more than a million jobs but also $150 billion in tax revenues.

The auto bailout saved 1.5 million jobs in 2009 and 2010, according to the Center for Automotive Research. But the restructuring was hardly a "gift" to union bosses or union members: The government used its leverage to win historic union concessions: Many smaller plants closed, and a two-tier wage system was put in place.

At the time, Obama's ultimatum to the car companies was widely described as "tough love" - and compared unfavorably with the lack of discipline imposed on the banks that were continuing to give their execs millions in bonuses. Three years later, it's obvious which approach worked best.

In the Chrysler commercial, Eastwood says, "All that matters is what's ahead," but we disagree.

The only way to stay on the right course is to see clearly in the rearview mirror.

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