Paul Greenberg
Want to know what a major theme of our president's re-election campaign will be, at least in the rust belt? His vice president and running mate unveiled it just the other day. Here's the gospel according to Joe Biden:

"Because of what we did, the auto industry is rising again. ... At the time, many people thought the president should just let GM and Chrysler go under." But the president "certainly wasn't going to abandon an industry that had meant so much to our economy...."

What?

Can the vice president have forgotten that both GM and Chrysler did go under on this administration's watch and at its urging? Chrysler filed for bankruptcy protection at the end of April 2009, despite an earlier $4 billion loan from the federal government, and General Motors followed it into bankruptcy a month later. To quote that noted economist Casey Stengel, you could look it up.

The reorganization and revival of both those corporate giants might have been cleaner and quicker, and certainly easier on the taxpayers, if Chrysler and GM had been allowed to fail sooner, and then had been reorganized without all that government help/interference/general mucking about.

I say might have been. Because we'll never know for sure -- hypotheticals are only hypotheticals, and history can't be rewound and played again with a different ending to see what an alternative policy might have produced.

But that's still no reason to obscure the history we do know, tossing any inconvenient facts down the memory hole lest they interfere with the smooth flow of a campaign speech. In this case, the omissions include those two bankruptcy filings Mr. Biden seems to have forgotten -- or assumes the rest of us have.

By the time this column appears in print, the president will have done his own variation on the same theme; these campaign strategies are well orchestrated. Even if the administration's ever-changing policy as Chrysler and GM collapsed wasn't.

This much is common knowledge: Both these automakers, whatever their size and connections and importance, all of which are considerable, richly deserved to fail -- as the millions of Americans who bought all those Japanese and German imports over the years can testify. Which is how a competitive market is supposed to work -- for the benefit of the consumer and the competitors themselves, who are obliged to improve their product in order to survive. (Anybody in the newspaper business these days ought to know how that works.)

Instead of improving their product, GM and Chrysler improved and expanded their dependence on government -- till even the government lost patience and ushered them into bankruptcy, albeit at still more public expense.

Those bankruptcies, contrary to the conventional wisdom at the time, were good news. That way, the companies got a chance to start anew and do better.

That's the purpose of bankruptcy: to clear the books and the air and allow folks a second chance, a chance to do better. It's hard to imagine the better products Detroit is turning out these days without the spur of foreign competition. By treating GM and Chrysler as too big to fail for too long, Washington did them no favor. It just put off the inevitable and made it all the more painful when it did arrive.

Now both companies are demonstrating that they can compete very well with foreign products, but it took letting them fail to get their attention.

Failure is not without its benefits; it can be a most educational experience.

In the end, the administration had to follow Mitt Romney's counsel and let both these corporations file for bankruptcy. But in the alternate universe Joe Biden inhabits, GM and Chrysler never went under. Why let an historical detail or two stand in the way of a rousing campaign speech? Like a bespoke historian, he will happily tailor history to suit the customer. (Orders now being taken for the fall season of 2012).

Despite all Mr. Biden's handiwork, his final product may not convince.

Even if his tucked-and-fitted history shines with the sharkskin splendor of a Beirut business suit, the customer cannot escape the uneasy feeling that there's a rip down the back, and it's widening with his every step. Consumer confidence drops and the uneasy feeling grows that the country is going in the wrong direction. Indeed, that feeling begins to take on the solidity of a firm conviction. And the American voter, like a driver who suspects he's made a wrong turn, begins to hear an inner voice he can no longer ignore:

Turn around!

Mr. Biden's politic history of corporate bankruptcies in 2009, which was much too politic to emphasize any corporate bankruptcies, brings to mind a little label spotted on a display case in a Midwestern art museum years ago:

The authenticity of these artifacts is now under review. As the presidential campaign of 2012 gears up -- indeed, you can hear the gears grinding -- perhaps a similar label should be attached to any and all campaign speeches still in the development stage:

The authenticity of these facts is now under review.

Or should be. Because any similarity between the "facts" cited in these partisan recitations and what actually happened may be only coincidental.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.