Those who got the auto rescue wrong

Last week, we discussed the extent to which the Obama administration’s rescue of the American automotive industry has been a success. Today, E.J. Dionne Jr. pauses to take note of those who got this challenge “utterly wrong.”

“Having the federal government involved in every aspect of the private sector is very dangerous,” Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) told Fox News in December 2008. “In the long term it could cause us to become a quasi-socialist country.” I don’t see any evidence that we have become a “quasi-socialist country,” just big profits.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) called the bailout “the leading edge of the Obama administration’s war on capitalism,” while other members of Congress derided the president’s auto industry task force. “Of course we know that nobody on the task force has any experience in the auto business, and we heard at the hearing many of them don’t even own cars,” declared Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) after a hearing on the bailout in May 2009. “And they’re dictating the auto industry for our future? What’s wrong with this picture?”

What’s wrong, sorry to say, is that you won’t see a news conference where the bailout’s foes candidly acknowledge how mistaken they were.

The lack of accountability is stunning but not surprising. It reflects a deep bias in the way our political debate is carried out. The unexamined assumption of so much political reporting is that attacks on government’s capacity to do anything right make intuitive sense because “everybody knows” that government is basically inefficient and incompetent, especially when compared with the private sector.

Dionne’s column only notes a handful of examples — he has a limited amount of space — but the record is extensive. Dozens of prominent Republican officials, including most of the GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate, were absolutely certain the rescue would be a disaster. In the midst of an economic crisis, Republicans saw the American automotive industry — one of the central backbones of the nation’s manufacturing sector — teetering on the brink of collapse. The GOP was prepared to simply let it fail, forcing hundreds of thousands of workers into unemployment during an already-severe jobs crisis.

What’s more, they were equally certain Obama’s rescue plan was hopeless. It was a foregone conclusion, they said, since government intervention in the marketplace is always a disaster.

Except they were wrong — about literally every aspect of the debate. The policy they assured us was doomed to fail actually succeeded, and every GOP prediction about the rescue has proven false.

I bring this up, in part because of the need for accountability, which is generally absent from our discourse, and in part because these exact same people are now telling us they know what’s best for our economy. If we just listen to the same Republicans who were wrong before, and take money out of the economy as it struggles to grow, everything will be fine.

Or so they claim.

When evaluating who has credibility on these pressing matters, it sure would be nice if track records and recent performances had at least some bearing on the debate.