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Romney on the Auto Bailout, Version 3.0

Mitt Romney, who was for the auto bailout before he was against it, is back to being for it.

And to think they say the man has no principles.

Romney’s latest effort to spin the rescue of America’s auto industry came on Satruday, when Eric Fehrnstrom, his top campaign strategist and longtime political adviser, was addressing a forum hosted by the Washington Post. Here’s the Post account:

“His position on the bailout was exactly what President Obama followed,” Fehrnstrom said. “He said, ‘If you want to save the auto industry, just don’t write them a check. That will seal their doom. What they need to do is go through a managed bankruptcy process.’ ”
“Consider that the crown jewel. The only economic success that President Obama has had,” Fehrnstrom said, “is because he followed Mitt Romney’s advice.”

Not exactly. Since the fall of 2008, when Chrysler and General Motors first sought the federal government’s assistance, Romney’s rhetoric has shifted back and forth. Typically the statements include a dash of ambiguity, making it possible for Romney or his advisers to parse statements after the fact in ways that are, at the moment, politically advantageous. But the implications are always clear and, in retrospect, they clearly contradict one another.

Among those of us following this ongoing saga have been writers for Talking Points Memo, who (I think) were the first to notice Fehrnstrom’s latest statement. But, for those of you who need a refresher, the story goes like this:

Romney’s first major public statement on the issue was a New York Times op-ed, in which he suggested a “structured bankruptcy” similar to what Obama eventually pursued – which, I assume, is what Fehrnstrom has in mind. But the op-ed didn’t specify what role the federal government would play.

Once the Republican primaries got underway, however, Romney started attacking the Obama Administration, saying it was wrong to put taxpayer dollars at risk.

It would have been best not to have had the president and government put their hands on the bankruptcy process. ... Bailouts are not the answer.

Then, a few months ago, Romney began to backtrack, as the impending Michigan primaries put the issue in the national spotlight.: Criticizing the rescue but on more specific grounds, like the treatment of autoworker unions, while suggesting that Romney, as president, would never have let the companies go bankrupt. Now Romney seems to be backtracking all the way, claiming (through his top campaign surrogate) the Obama strategy was really his all along.

Again, all of the statements from Romney and his advisers, including this latest from Fehrnstrom, are sufficiently vague so that it's impossible to say, with 100 percent certainty, what he meant. But, as far as I know, Romney has consistently opposed Obama’s decision to loan GM and Chrysler money directly from the government, putting taxpayer dollars at risk. And those loans are precisely what allowed the companies to survive, according to most experts, because the private sector was in no position to make those loans in late 2008 or early 2009.

Tracking Romney’s statements on the auto bailout can be tiring and, yes, tedious. On the bright side, it can also be funny. Inspired by Saturday’s statement, in which Fehrnstrom suggested the auto bailout was really Romney’s idea, Oliver Willis of Media Matters for America used his twitter feed to unleash a series of tweets he called “Fehrnstroming.” Among them:

romney 1774: "anyone else think its time we stop being british subjects?"
romney was in the colts draft room the day they got peyton manning: "gentlemen, i just feel it in my gut.
romney: "yeah, stan, what if we make the lead character a teenager, and have him bitten by something like... a spider?
romney: "sorry to interrupt this gathering of cavemen, but have you fellows considered 'fire'?
romney: "bill, this stuff is good... but have you tried writing it in iambic pentameter?"

Good stuff. By the way, Fehrnstrom is the subject of another magisterial political profile by my former colleague Jason Zengerle, writing in GQ. It’s well worth your time.

Follow me on twitter @CitizenCohn