“Detroit” Versus Detroit

My colleague Matthew Yglesias had a little fun today with the people who refuse to distinguish “Detroit” (as in the auto industry) with the city of Detroit. These people include the staffers of the National Republican Congressional Committee, who don’t actually have to worry about any Detroit-area House seats (the state’s been gerrymandered to pack Democrats in a handful of districts) but want to get in on the fun.

“President Barack Obama promised voters on the campaign trail in October 2012 that he wouldn’t let Detroit go bankrupt,” writes Andrew Clark. “So imagine our surprise when we saw the news last night that Detroit was filing for bankruptcy, the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.”

This is half silly and half true. When Mitt Romney wrote an op-ed mischeviously titled (by editors) “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” he was talking about the auto industry, because there was a question at the time whether to let Chrysler and GM go through bankruptcy or use TARP money and a government takeover to restructure them. Despite Romney’s origins in the state, Michigan never became particularly competitive in 2012, and part of the reason was a persistent Democratic battering on the idea that he had it in for Detroit. At one point the DNC used real Detroiters to condemn this callous candidate, a move similar to the PR campaign Chrysler rolled out in 2011—the comeback narrative.

Doesn’t look great in retrospect, does it? But most of the time Romney and Obama talked “Detroit,” they were talking to Ohio and Wisconsin voters about the auto industry, as seen in this Obama ad.

The Detroit News (which has a fairly conservative op-ed page) is cited, but the ad’s mostly about auto jobs in Ohio.

You take your political shots when you can, but conflating “Detroit” and Detroit when it comes to bankruptcy is just a confusion-maker. The bankruptcy option on the table for the car companies, in 2008, was some sort of managed Chapter 7 process that would have stopped cold elements of the parts industry. Detroit’s now going through a Chapter 9 process. And it’s not like Obama was the only politician who told Michigan that Detroit could escape its turmoil without Chapter 9. No one wanted this.