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A Son Of Detroit?

Mitt Romney, not surprisingly, just put out a new campaign ad touting his Michigan roots.  It shows photos from his childhood in the state and footage of his present-day self driving around Detroit as he laments the decline of the city in recent years. “How in the world did an industry and its leaders and its unions get in such a fix that they lost  jobs, lost their future?” he says. “President Obama did all these things the liberals wanted to do for years and the fact that you’ve got millions of Americans out of work, home values collapsing, people here in Detroit in distress ... I want to make Michigan stronger and better. Michigan’s been my home. This is personal.”

There is much to say about Romney’s complicated relationship with the state his father was governor of and the auto industry his father was an executive in. For now, just a couple thoughts on this. First, it’s worth noting that Romney’s suggestion in this ad that the “unions” and “liberals” are the ones to blame for the plight of his home state is nothing new. In May 2010, the Wall Street Journal ran a poignant article about the fact that Detroit’s blight was so widespread that the city was demolishing even Romney’s childhood home, a 5,500-square foot mansion on Balmoral Drive that his parents owned from 1941 to 1953, when the family moved to the suburbs. The Journal asked Romney for some reflections on the fact that his childhood home was being knocked down. His answer:

The younger Mr. Romney, who is considered a leading GOP presidential candidate for 2012, said “it’s sad” that his childhood home is being razed, “but sadder still to consider what has happened to the city of Detroit, which has been left hollow by fleeing jobs and liberal social policies.”

There is a long debate to be had about the reasons for the singularly steep decline of the city of Detroit. One of the more intriguing theories I recently came across that it was precisely the strength of the city’s auto industry that exacerbated the city’s population loss starting in the 1950s. As crime and racial tension increased in Detroit, as in many other cities, more whites than in other cities had the resources to flee the city for a nice house in the suburbs, thanks to their well-paying auto industry jobs. More often-cited are the other ways in which autos were both a curse and a blessing for the city—downtown expressways and parking garages did more damage in Detroit than just about anywhere else, and the reliance on the Big 3 let southeast Michigan grow complacent about diversifying its economy. Again, one could spend a long time hashing all of this out. What is jarring, though, is for a son of the city—and of the auto industry and of a relatively liberal Republican governor who was in charge of the state when Detroit exploded into riots—to glibly chalk the city’s plight up to “liberal social policies.”

On a lighter note: at the CPAC convention in Washington last weekend, Romney tried to explain that he’d come to his conservatism through life experiences rather than book learning with this joking line: “There are college students at this conference who are reading Burke and Hayek. When I was your age, you could have told me they were infielders for the Detroit Tigers.” Just wondering: how does it boost Romney’s son of Detroit credentials for him to admit that he would not have known who the real infielders were for the Tigers when he was a young man in Michigan? Just for the record, here they are, the starting infielders for the ’66 Tigers, when Romney was a freshman in college: catcher Bill Freehan, first baseman Norm Cash (team leader with 32 homers), second baseman Jerry Lumpe, shortstop Dick McAuliffe, and third baseman Don Wert.

And starting in left field was Willie Horton. Not that one, obviously, but still, a coincidental link with those dread liberal social policies to come.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis