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Mark Shields: Republicans must 'Cowboy Up" on saving U.S. auto industry

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

There’s an old Southern expression, “back in my old stompin’ grounds.” Having examined the nuances of Southern-speak for nearly six decades now, I have determined that “stompin’ grounds” generally referred not so much to a place where one lived, but more a place where one visited, hung out and — more importantly — shared good times with good people.

Fortunately, most Americans are pragmatists. Take this question asked in 2009 and again just recently by the respected pollsters at the Pew Research Center: "The government also gave loans to General Motors and Chrysler. ... Do you think that was mostly good or mostly bad for the economy?" Three years ago, by a decisive three-to-two margin, Americans answered Washington's loans to the car companies had been "mostly bad" (54 percent) rather than "mostly good" (37 percent).

But in the Pew survey, completed less than two weeks ago, the evidence of General Motors' comeback -- once again the world's largest automaker, with record 2011 net income of $9.19 billion -- and Chrysler's own fourth-quarter profit of $225 million in 2011 -- the company's first year out of the red since 2005 -- had totally reversed public opinion.

Now, a healthy majority (56 percent) judges that Washington's loans to Detroit have been "mostly good" for the economy, while just 38 percent says "mostly bad." Note that this represents a 35 percent turnaround in public opinion in support of the federal loans in just three years.

Let us remember that the original federal assistance to the U.S. automakers was made by Republican President George W. Bush in the closing weeks of his administration. The big decision to commit $80 billion of public money to save Detroit, of course, was made by the new Democratic president, Barack Obama.

In the spirit of full disclosure, the trusted Gallup Poll got a less positive response to its recent question on the auto loans, which was phrased differently: "Now looking back to one of the major actions taken by the federal government in the last four years, would you say you approve or disapprove of the financial bailout for U.S. automakers that were in danger of failing?"

I frankly think the word "bailout" suggests an unearned benefit and triggers a negative reaction, while there is no mention of practical effect on the nation's economy. Forty-four percent approved and 51 percent disapproved in the Gallup poll.

It is now time for Republicans in general and the four remaining GOP presidential candidates to "cowboy up," to stop whining and to take responsibility by publicly acknowledging the reality of success -- that this federal policy has worked. Because of the U.S. loan to the auto companies, the country is stronger, more prosperous and more confident than it was before those loans were made.

Face the truth, Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum, and just admit, reluctantly, that the American auto industry is once again robust. In the last 33 months, U.S. auto companies have hired an additional 207,000 workers. Be happy, fellows, that 47,500 GM autoworkers will begin in March to earn profit-sharing checks of up to $7,000 because the taxpayers of this country and the federal government in Washington, D.C., made the bold, risky and right decision to save the industry from dismemberment.

And the feds did a lot more than write a check. Washington demanded that GM and Chrysler make the painful, difficult reforms necessary to once again compete.

It's time for Republicans to outgrow their dogmatic ideology -- arguing that the U.S. government cannot do anything well or wisely -- to become realistic pragmatists and able to celebrate this wonderfully American success story!

To read Mark Shields' past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.