Paul Ryan attacked President Obama in his convention address Wednesday night for failing to rescue an auto plant that closed under President George W. Bush, adding to a litany of complaints about the accuracy of his speech. But the timing of the plant’s various stages of shutdown, and some rhetorical gymnastics from the Romney campaign about what Ryan actually said, have prompted some rebuttals that Ryan’s attack was on the money.
Let’s review things in a bit more detail.
The plant’s biggest problems at the start of 2008, according to GM, were a combination of rising gas prices and a weak economy that had wrecked demand for SUVs, which they produced.
Obama visited in February 2008 and talked about how the government could help the industry revamp their factories to make more fuel efficient vehicles.
“I believe if our government is there to support you, and give you the assistance you need to re-tool and make this transition, that this plant will be here for another hundred years,” he said.
In June 2008, however, GM announced that the plant would close by 2010 due to the aforementioned lack of demand for SUVs. The Bush administration, which was also promoting a move toward more fuel-efficient vehicles, described the plant closure and related moves by the company as a sign GM was “adapting well” to the shifting business climate.
Ryan, along with then-Sens. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Herb Kohl (D-WI), lobbied to save the plant, whose closure represented a heartbreaking blow to his district. A June 3, 2008 letter from Ryan, Feingold and Kohl regarding the closure said the move would have an “enormous effect” on local families.
Then-candidate Obama also put out a statement calling the closings “a painful reminder not only of the challenges America faces in our global economy, but of George Bush’s failed economic policies,” blaming the administration for not promoting fuel efficiency enough.
While GM already planned to close the plan before 2010, the financial collapse that fall moved things up. On Dec. 23, 2008, the plant ceased SUV production, leaving over 1,000 employees out of a job. The Janesville Gazette devoted virtually their entire paper to covering its last day and a slideshow they produced of its workers saying goodbye to the plant is as wrenching as it gets.
While the vast majority of workers were ousted that day, the plant retained a small number — 57 employees — to finish outstanding orders on trucks for Isuzu before the plant shut down entirely. Conservative commentators have cited the smaller operation, which ended in April 2009, as evidence Obama did bear responsibility for its closure, but it was understood to be a temporary operation from the start. Local news coverage made this clear.
In keeping with the June announcement, the plant ended up shut down entirely. It was still owned by GM, however, and remained technically “standby.”
Ryan certainly tried to help. In a departure from his usual free-market orthodoxy, Ryan voted for the 2008 auto rescue that Romney opposed and later joined a bipartisan delegation of Wisconsin lawmakers in asking the federal government try to restart operations at Wisconsin plants.
Here Ryan might be on more solid ground, in terms of timing at least. But the idea the Obama administration should have ordered GM to keep an individual assembly line open is sharply at odds with frequently expressed opposition from Ryan and Romney alike to “picking winners and losers.”
While the bailout packages pushed by Bush and later Obama are credited with saving over 1 million jobs, Janesville’s plant and several others in Wisconsin never restarted. Industry experts have suggested that if GM’s recovery continues on pace, Janesville’s plant could be in line for more work, but it hasn’t happened yet. The Obama campaign, for its part, notes that the area received a $6 million federal grant last year to help retrain displaced auto workers and promote clean-industry jobs.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.