In 2012, President Obama campaigned as a champion of the auto industry by taking credit for the auto bailout and repeatedly hitting his opponent, Mitt Romney, for opposing it. Some think the strategy helped Obama win reelection.
Four years later, Hillary Clinton appears to be using the same playbook — only this time she’s doing it in the Democratic primary. In Sunday’s Democratic debate in Flint, Mich., Clinton underscored her support for that bailout and — somewhat disingenuously — suggested that Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) didn’t support it.
“I voted to save the auto industry,” she said. “He voted against the money that ended up saving the auto industry. I think that is a pretty big difference.”
What Clinton said is technically true, but it glosses over a lot of important nuance, including the fact that Sanders is actually on the record as supporting the auto bailout. He even voted for it.
Clinton clearly figures the auto bailout may prove to a big factor going into Tuesday’s primary in Michigan and the one next week in Ohio, where both candidates are hoping to do well and where the auto industry is big. So it seems like she’s willing to take the gamble that fact checkers may call her out for her tactic Sunday — but that voters won’t.
The drama isn’t likely to go away, as Clinton and Sanders battle it out for support in union-heavy auto states in the coming days. So here’s the Clinton-Sanders fight over the auto bailout, explained.
First, some recent history
As the magnitude of the 2008 financial crisis swept the nation in the waning days of his presidency, President George W. Bush announced he was injecting $17 billion in taxpayer money to auto giants Chrysler and General Motors, which warned they needed an immediate influx of cash to stay afloat.
Bush was pulling money out of the $700 billion financial rescue program that Congress had approved two months earlier, most of which was intended for and eventually went to prop up Wall Street banks and insurance companies.
Bush didn’t want to use that money for the auto industry; he had hoped Congress would approve a separate bailout for GM and Chrysler. Democrats in Congress tried to, but in December 2008, Senate Republicans blocked a $14 billion plan over a disagreement about its terms.
Republicans weren’t opposed to the aid, so much as they wanted the auto industry to make big cuts in pay and benefits by 2009; Democrats wanted to give the auto industry a few more years to cut its debts. The end result was that Congress didn’t set up a separate bailout for the auto industry, and Bush was forced to draw on the Wall Street bailout to prop up the automakers.
Where Sanders and Clinton come in
Clinton and Sanders were both in the Senate at the time, and contrary to what Clinton implied Sunday, both supported the idea of an auto bailout.
Sanders argued that letting the auto industry go under was too big of a risk for middle-class workers — it could lower wages across all sectors of the economy and have a ripple effect on states like Vermont that were fairly far removed from the auto industry. He was quoted by Vermont Public Radio at the time as saying:
The problem is if you don’t act in the midst of a growing recession, what does it mean to create a situation where millions of more people become unemployed? And that could spread, and I have serious concerns about that. I think it would be a terrible idea to add millions more to the unemployment rolls.
But Sanders was vehemently against the larger $700 billion bailout to prop up the banks. (As evidenced by his presidential campaign, Sanders is no fan of Wall Street.) So he voted against the bank bailout.
The bank bailout was so big it had to be doled out in portions. In January 2009, Senate Republicans tried to block the Treasury Department from releasing the second half of the money, some of which was designated for the auto industry. Sanders, based on his opposition to the Wall Street bailout, voted against releasing that money as well.
That vote gave Clinton the opening she needed to hit Sanders as anti-auto bailout on Sunday. “If everybody had voted the way he did, I believe the auto industry would have collapsed, taking 4 million jobs with it,” she said.
(Side note: Having your votes picked apart by opponents is one reason why it’s tough to run for president as a senator.)
Clinton is technically correct that Sanders voted against releasing the money that went to the auto bailout, but Sanders can also correctly argue that he supported the auto bailout when it wasn’t tied to the Wall Street one.
This back and forth likely isn’t going anywhere; expect both to claim as much over the next few days.