I have not written publicly in a year. I guess it’s time.

Last night on the CNN debate in Flint, Michigan, Secretary Clinton said of Senator Sanders,

I voted to save the auto industry. He voted against the money that ended up saving the auto industry. I think that is a pretty big difference.

The Michigan primary is tomorrow so this is a big deal. I have no dog in a primary fight between Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders.

During the time in question I was serving as Director of the White House National Economic Council staff for President Bush and was heavily involved in this issue.

Here is the full Clinton quote:

CLINTON: Well — well, I’ll tell you something else that Senator Sanders was against. 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 had the best year that the auto industry has had in a long time. I voted to save the auto industry.


He voted against the money that ended up saving the auto industry. I think that is a pretty big difference.

Now let me get back to what happened in January of 2009. The Bush administration negotiated the deal. Were there things in it that I didn’t like? Would I have done it differently? Absolutely.

But was the auto bailout money in it — the $350 billion that was needed to begin the restructuring of the auto industry? Yes, it was. So when I talk about Senator Sanders being a one-issue candidate, I mean very clearly — you have to make hard choices when you’re in positions of responsibility. The two senators from Michigan stood on the floor and said, “we have to get this money released.” I went with them, and I went with Barack Obama. You did not. If everybody had voted the way he did, I believe the auto industry would have collapsed, taking four million jobs with it.

Key conclusion

While she gets a few details wrong, Secretary Clinton’s story is roughly correct right up until you get to her punchline. Then she blows it. In addition she ignores a more important vote from six weeks earlier in which she and Senator Sanders voted the same way, in favor of helping the auto industry.

Secretary Clinton’s attack misleads Michigan voters and others who supported the auto loans. She is playing semantic games in an attempt to create a policy difference where none exists.

As with all things Clinton, you have to parse her phrasing carefully. The sleight-of-hand is quite clever.

The details

Three votes matter:

  • On October 1, 2008, Senator Clinton voted for TARP while Senator Sanders voted against it. TARP became law.
  • On December 11, 2008, Senators Clinton and Sanders both voted for cloture on the motion to proceed to a bill to provide loans to the auto industry, a Senate attempt to marry up legislation with a bill passed by the House the previous day. That cloture vote failed and the bill died.
  • On January 15, 2009, Senator Clinton voted against a resolution of disapproval to release the second $350 B of TARP funds while Senator Sanders voted for this resolution. The vote failed and the resolution died, thus allowing the full TARP funding to be used by President Obama and his team when they took over. This is the vote she highlighted last night.

There are two key legislative realities to understand about these three votes.

  1. The first and third votes were principally about TARP and not about auto loans. The second vote, the December vote on which Clinton and Sanders agreed, was clearly about the auto industry.
  2. The January vote was substantively meaningless since everyone knew that President Bush would have vetoed the resolution had it passed, and that he could have easily sustained his veto. This vote was symbolic, not substantive.

From a Michigan perspective Senator Sanders cast one “wrong” vote that in hindsight was essential to helping the auto industry: he voted against TARP in September 2008 while she voted for it. Had TARP not become law there would not have been funds available for the initial Bush auto loans in late December or for the Obama auto loans the following spring. The logic Secretary Clinton used last night applies well to her September 2008 vote, which differed from that of her primary opponent.

But the logic applies to that vote only when we look at its practical effect in hindsight. At the time no one anticipated using TARP funds for the auto industry so she cannot argue that Senator Sanders chose in September not to help Detroit. Since she did not mention the September vote last night, she did not make this mistake, but we’ll see that she did make a variant of it when characterizing the January vote.

On the vote most directly applicable to the auto industry, the one in December, Senators Clinton and Sanders voted the same way: aye. They can both legitimately argue that with these votes they explicitly chose to try to help Michigan. Despite their votes that legislation failed, leading to President Bush’s decision shortly thereafter to use TARP funds for auto loans.

By mid January the initial round of TARP loans to GM, Chrysler, and their finance companies was underway. We (the Bush team) coordinated with the Obama team to have President Bush trigger release of the second $350 B of TARP funds in his last few days, a mechanism in the TARP law enacted three months prior. We did this before January 20th so President Obama would have the additional funds available on day one if a crisis struck, and so that he didn’t have to take the political hit for vetoing a resolution of disapproval if necessary.

That release triggered the resolution of disapproval mechanism we created in the TARP law. In theory this process would allow the Congress to stop release of the second $350 B by enacting a resolution of disapproval. In practice everyone knew this was impossible. Even if the House and Senate had passed the resolution (and we were confident they would not), President Bush would have quickly vetoed it and we let people know that. To override that veto would have required more than two-thirds of the House and more than two-thirds of the Senate. That scenario wasn’t just infeasible, it was legislatively impossible. Every Senator voting on the resolution of disapproval knew, with certainty, that their vote would not have any practical effect on the release of the second $350 B or the funds available for banks, President Obama’s subsequent mortgage relief, or a second round of auto loans.

This is the key to understanding Secretary Clinton’s sleight-of-hand last night. She is technically correct when she said, “If everybody had voted the way he did, I believe the auto industry would have collapsed, taking four million jobs with it.” If every House and Senate member had voted to disapprove the release of these funds, then a Bush veto would have been overridden and there would have been no funds available for a second round of auto loans.

But in practice these votes were symbolic rather than substantive, and they were symbolically about TARP, not auto loans. Only now, in hindsight, can she frame them as having been about the auto industry. I am glad she voted symbolically the way she did, in support of and defense of TARP, and I disapprove of Senator Sanders’ no vote. But it is absurd for her to claim both that with this vote Senators Sanders chose not to help the auto industry, and that this January no vote could have had any practical negative effect on Michigan.

Upon careful examination her quote is quite carefully constructed. “I voted to save the auto industry. He voted against the money that ended up saving the auto industry. I think that is a pretty big difference.”

A fair reading instead would be:

  • She voted in September 2008 for legislation to rescue the global financial system while he voted against it. Although no one knew it at the time, they later learned this vote provided the funds essential to save GM and Chrysler from collapse.
  • In December 2008 they both voted for legislation specifically aimed at helping the auto industry. That legislation failed.
  • In January 2009 she cast a substantively meaningless but symbolically important vote supporting TARP while he cast a parallel vote opposing TARP. That vote had no practical effect on the auto industry, and at the time was not framed as a choice to help or not help autos. She is now misleadingly reinterpreting it as a substantively important vote against the auto industry and the State of Michigan.


I hope this clarifies things a bit.