One of the more substantive moments of last night’s debate for the Republican presidential candidates came when Mitt Romney was asked about the rescue of the American auto industry. It’s been a problematic issue for the former governor — he drew protestors in Michigan last week — and his comments last night are worth considering in more detail.

The questioner noted that General Motors and Chrysler “have rebounded” following the Obama administration’s rescue plan, and Romney was specifically asked, “Would you say the bailout program was a success?” He replied:

“The bailout program was not a success because the bailout program wasted a lot of money. About $17 billion was used unnecessarily. […]

“[T]he Bush administration and the Obama administration wrote checks to the auto industry. Ultimately, they went through the very bankruptcy process that I suggested from the beginning.”

CNN’s John King reminded Romney of his predictions when the industry was near collapse, when he said we could “kiss the American automotive industry goodbye” if the companies were bailed out. King suggested this certainly looks mistaken now, but Romney continued to defend himself.

“No, I wasn’t wrong, because if you read the rest of the op-ed piece, it says what they need to do is go through a bankruptcy process to shed unnecessary costs. If they just get paid checks after checks from the federal government, they’re going to be locked in with high UAW costs, legacy costs. They’ll never be able to get on their feet. They have to go through bankruptcy.

“And it turned out that that’s finally what they did. And the head of the UAW, he wrote an op-ed piece saying, Romney’s wrong, the government has to step in and give them a check. That’s the wrong way to go. Use the process of law. Use the process of American ingenuity. Don’t have government try and guide this economy.”

So, let’s review. Two years ago, Romney was against Obama’s policy and predicted it would fail. Romney got it wrong, and the president got it right.

Three weeks ago, Romney said Obama’s policy was actually Romney’s idea in the first place.

And last night, Romney was simply incoherent, mixing all of his critiques together. Romney said the policy did and didn’t work; he said he opposed and came up with the solution; and he said President Obama did and didn’t follow Romney’s preferred course of action.

This doesn’t make any sense at all.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.