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"Oops" -- and Why Romney Should Thank Perry

The headlines from Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate will be about Rick Perry and his “oops” moment. In case you missed it, Perry was describing his economic agenda when he mentioned that he wanted to eliminate three federal agencies – and couldn’t remember the third. He got Commerce and Education, but flailed about for a painful few seconds, trying to think of the other. Ron Paul jumped in, suggesting maybe it should be five agencies. Another candidate said maybe Perry was thinking of the EPA. No, Perry said, it was another department – until, finally, he admitted he just didn’t know. “Sorry,” he said. “Oops.”

Expectations for Perry were pretty low going into this debate. With that moment, he managed to perform beneath them. It’s hard to believe that Perry's candidacy could survive a moment that so perfectly illustrates his lack of qualifications to serve as president. Then again, it's hard to believe his candidacy has survived this long, given his poor performance in previous debates. So maybe Perry will just keep on going.

Either way, Perry’s flub obscured more interesting exchanges – including two moments that revealed a great deal about Mitt Romney, the one candidate who both has a chance of winning and seems intellectually up to the job of being president.

One moment came in a question about the Obama Administration’s rescue of the auto industry. The question was altogether appropriate for the setting: This debate was in Rochester, Michigan, just outside Detroit – and the focus was on jobs. It also raised a critical issue that hasn't been settled: What Romney actually thought about the bailout and when.

As noted previously in this space, at various points in 2008 and 2009 Romney seemed to be calling for a plan more or less like the one Obama eventually pursued: A structured bankruptcy in which Chrysler and General Motors would shrink and reorganize their operations, but maintain a serious manufacturing presence in the Midwest.

Lately, though, Romney has said he had in mind a very different strategy from the one Obama eventually pursued. When companies reorganize through bankruptcy, they require loans so they can maintain operations until they are ready to make profits again. As Romney tells it, Obama made a huge mistake by having the government make those loans, with taxpayer dollars, rather than using private money. He made that point again on Wednesday night.

The substantive problem with this position is that such a plan almost surely would not have worked. Remember, Chrysler and GM were going down smack in the middle of the financial crisis. Private financing was unavailable. Without government loans, liquidation was the most likely possibility: The companies would have effectively ceased to exist, selling off assets and ending jobs for hundreds of thousands if not millions -- and quite possibly plunging the entire Midwest into a crisis that looked like the Great Depression. 

Of course, that’s assuming Romney actually believes it was wrong for the government to make the loans – or, more precisely, that he believed it at the time the federal government acted. The available evidence suggests he did not. In a November 2008 interview with Neil Cavuto of Fox News, Romney talked about the first round of government loans (which the Bush Administration made) without any suggestion the loans were a problem:

I want to protect and grow jobs in the auto industry. And so, as the government prepares to put in billions of dollars to that industry, let's make sure that, as part of this effort, that we invest in companies that are newly streamlined, more economic, more efficient, and that we've really created a bright future for the American automobile sector.

And later, when Obama announced the second round of loans and plans for a structured bankruptcy, Romney actually praised the president during an inteview with CNN

I think a lot of people expected the president just to cave and to write a big check and hope for the better. I'm glad that he's expressing some backbone on this and saying to those guys, 'you have to get your house in order or you guys are gone, you'll have to go to bankruptcy.'

Undoubtedly Romney would have managed the bankruptcy a little differently than Obama did, particularly when it came to the treatment of the union workforce. But unless the Romney campaign has transcripts I haven't seen -- always a possibility, although I'm skeptical -- Romney wasn't complaining about government loans per se when Obama announced his plan.

The other revealing moment for Romney came in response to a question from co-moderator John Harwood. In a previous exchange about health care, Romney had talked about the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship – which, Republicans always say, the Affordable Care Act disrupts by introducing government meddling. But Romney’s position isn’t that government shouldn’t get involved in health care. It’s that the federal government shouldn’t get involved with health care. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney authorized a significant government intrusion into the health insurance system – and Romney has said he’d let other states do the same.

Harwood wanted to know why those two positions weren’t in contradiction – and Romney, who’s a superb debater, was actually flustered. Eventually, Romney changed the subject to Medicaid and a statement that “Obamacare is wrong.” He never answered the question because, I suspect, he doesn’t have an answer. He simply doesn’t believe what the true conservatives do -- i.e., that government should stay out of health care.

Will he pay a political price for that apostasy? What about his shifting positions on the auto bailout? So far he hasn’t suffered too much. And I suspect he won’t – at least as long as Perry keeps stealing the spotlight with his goofs.