BREAKING: Senators make tradeoffs

During the last Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan, Hillary Clinton raised a new line of attack against Bernie Sanders: If you care about American industry so much, why did you oppose the auto bailout when American automakers were on the verge of bankruptcy in 2009?

This was news to Sanders, who seemed pretty sure that he did, in fact, support the auto bailout.

As it turns out, both Clinton and Sanders are technically correct. When the auto bailout bill was considered on its own, Senator Sanders supported it. When the funding mechanism for the program was bundled together with Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds in a separate bill, he voted against that, citing his opposition to the bank bailout.

As PolitiFact explained:

Bernie Sanders speaking at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, via John Pemble / Flickr

Bernie Sanders speaking at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, via John Pemble / Flickr

In October 2008, Congress approved the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). The money was intended to assist financial institutions, but it also ended up bailing out the auto industry.

That December, Congress tried to pass a separate $14 billion bailout program specifically for the auto industry, which was in really bad shape. But the measurefailed in the Senate, so President George W. Bush instead used his authority toallocate some of the TARP funds to General Motors and Chrysler.

Sanders (and Clinton, too) voted in favor of the December separate auto bailout.

“I think it would be a terrible idea to add millions more to the unemployment rolls,” Sanders said, according to Vermont Public Radio, explaining why he supported the measure.

However — and this is what Clinton is talking about — Sanders voted to block the release of the second half of the TARP funding, including the auto bailout funds, while Clinton voted for the funds. (Sanders opposed and Clinton supported the initial TARP bill.)

Sanders said he opposed bailout funding for financial firms, which is where the majority of TARP dollars were headed.

“I have strong reservations about continuing this bailout without strong taxpayer protections written into law,” he said in a statement. “I also object to using middle-class taxpayer money to bail out the exact same financial institutions whose greed and recklessness led to the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

Did Sanders vote against money that went to the auto industry? Yes. Does that mean he opposed saving the auto industry? Only if you want it to.

PolitiFact rated the claim “half-true.” Former Obama adviser David Axelrod went a step further and called it a cheap shot.

It would be most accurate, and more interesting, to say that Sanders considered bailing out Wall Street to be more bad than saving the auto industry was good. Sanders made a calculation that, given a good and bad thing bundled together in one up-or-down vote, the bad thing was more bad than the good thing was good. Clinton evaluated the same set of tradeoffs differently. Either way, the claim that Sanders supported letting the American auto industry collapse simply doesn’t pass the laugh test, which is why reports from Michigan have suggested that the attack backfired and actually energized United Auto Workers union members to support Sanders yesterday in Michigan’s primary.

None of this has kept Clinton from pressing on with the criticism today, seemingly banking on the idea that it will resonate in Ohio and Illinois, among other midwestern states that are set to vote soon. It doesn’t look like it’ll stick.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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