Reckless driving: The Hillary, Bernie blowup over autos

Story highlights

  • David Axelrod: Though Clinton's auto bailout attack on Sanders was a misfire, Sanders' bailout votes are worth questioning
  • Presidents are often faced with imperfect choices and have to be ready to govern

David Axelrod is CNN's senior political commentator and host of the podcast "The Axe Files." He was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Words matter, whether they're offered by the candidates or the endless legion of kibitzers, like myself, who add their voices to the cacophonous pageant of democracy.

As a newly-minted member of the peanut gallery, I stirred up a little dust the other day with my comments following an exchange between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at the CNN debate in Flint, Michigan.
    Eager to fend off Sanders' attacks on trade, Hillary pivoted to the auto bailout of 2009, which proved critical to saving and reviving the flagging American auto industry.
    David Axelrod
    "Well, well, I'll tell you something else that Sen. Sanders was against," she said. "He was against the auto bailout. In January of 2009, President-elect Obama asked everybody in the Congress to vote for the bailout.
    "The money was there, and had to be released in order to save the American auto industry and four million jobs, and to begin the restructuring. We just had the best year that the auto industry has had in a long time. I voted to save the auto industry."
    When I heard her comments, I was puzzled. I was there, as an incoming senior adviser to the President, and could not recall a free-standing vote on the auto bailout in January of 2009. I quickly realized Hillary was referring to a vote, five days before Obama took office, authorizing a second, $350 billion tranche of the Troubled Asset Relief Program -- the emergency funding requested by the Bush administration to help stabilize reeling banks and financial institutions.
    It was too cute by half.
    It was true that the TARP funding financed small bridge loans to help Chrysler and General Motors survive temporarily and give the new administration a few months to decide if and how the iconic companies could be saved. And, later, President Obama drew on TARP more heavily to execute the rescue.
    But TARP was, in the main, a program to save the big banks and the rest of the financial industry. Yes, Obama noted the auto angle in an appeal to Democratic senators as added inducement to swallow what was a bitter pill. But news coverage of the Senate vote in question bore virtually no mention of autos.
    I understood why Hillary was reticent about identifying the bill she supported and Sanders opposed as TARP. The program was, and is, as unpopular as it was necessary to keep the financial system from collapsing.
    But it was misleading to say that by voting against TARP, Sanders opposed the auto bailout -- particularly since he had, a month earlier, voted for a free-standing bill, which was defeated, to provide emergency loans to the auto industry.
    So when the subject came up on CNN the night of Bernie's surprising Michigan victory, I opined that Hillary's debate comments on autos, and a full-out effort by her campaign afterward to amplify them, were "kind of a cheap shot."
    This greatly irritated some in the Clinton camp, who, as they say in Washington, freely and frankly shared their concerns. In their next debate, Hillary went there again, but with slightly cleaned-up language:
    "Let's talk about the auto bailout because I think it's important for people to understand what happened. In December of 2008, we were both in the Senate, there was a vote on a free-standing bill to rescue the auto industry. We both voted for it. It was the right vote. Unfortunately, it did not succeed. The Republicans marshaled the votes against it.
    "A month later, in January, a new piece of legislation was offered that contained the money that would be used for the auto rescue. Then President-elect Obama -- before he'd even been sworn in -- sent word to all of us that he really hoped we would support it. He was still in the Senate, I was still in the Senate.
    "And I voted for it. It was a hard vote. I'll tell you, it was a hard vote. A lot of the votes you make are hard votes. But the fact is the money that rescued the auto industry was in that bill."
    This came a lot closer to the truth, though she still sidestepped the fact that this was a vote on TARP, widely reviled then and now, as the Wall Street bailout fund. (Wall Street wound up paying back the money with interest, a fact rarely cited by Sanders and others who opposed it.)
    So when I heard it, I tweeted:
    "She did it again and I'll say it again. It's misleading to imply that TARP II was an auto bailout bill."
    The tweet took off, getting thousands of retweets and more attention than I anticipated. But while I felt Hillary was still shading the argument in a misleading way, the tweet didn't do full justice to a valid claim on her part: No TARP, no auto bailout.
    I still believe Hillary has gotten fair criticism for her blatant overreach. But on reflection, I also could have commented more thoughtfully on the vote and that moment in time.
    Enraging as was the greed and connivery on Wall Street, the collapse of the financial system almost certainly would have ushered in a second Great Depression. Had GM and Chrysler not received support from TARP when they did, they likely would have folded before the Obama administration ever had a chance to meaningfully intervene.
    Presidents are often faced with galling, imperfect choices, particularly in these times of deep polarization and divided government.
    Hillary was on the right side of history with her vote, even if she crossed the line in her retelling of it. Bernie was wronged in the debate, but his vote raises questions about how a political "revolutionary" would deal with the realities of governing.
    I should have made this point, as well.
    The character of some arguments simply can't be captured in 140 characters.