President Obama will address an autoworkers conference in Washington on the same day Republican voters in Michigan choose their candidate, the White House announced today.
The move indicates how central his decision to bail out the auto industry has become to his re-election campaign in the rust belt, and also the degree to which the United Auto Workers union has become a key piece of the White House political machinery.
The UAW and supporters are rallying outside Ford Field this morning a counterpoint to Romney’s big speech today to the Detroit Economic Club, illustrating their protest with a display of American-made cards arranged to spell-out Romney's plan for a structured bankruptcy: “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”
The union remains a powerful political force in Michigan and in the region – though it has failed to elect Democrats in some recent statewide races – and it's also a longtime Obama ally. A new book by former Obama campaign aide Jeff Berman, in fact, details the role the UAW played at a crucial, forgotten moment of the 2008 primaries, when Hillary Clinton's allies sought to force Obama's and John Edwards' names on the ballot of a Michigan primary they were boycotting.
Berman writes in the "The Magic Number" — about which more here – that the union, which had sympathies for both Edwards and Obama, played a central role in scuttling the move and in keeping Obama's strategy intact.
I jump on the phone with UAW political director Dick Long, who I got to know when I was a senior advisor to the Gephardt presidential campaign. Dick is a senior member of the UAW’s leadership and someone I can trust.
“I need your help to fight the new legislation being pushed to force Obama, Edwards and the others onto the primary ballot,” I tell Dick. “We’re trying to run a national campaign according to the DNC’s rules and we shouldn’t be pulled into Michigan’s fight against New Hampshire’s early primary.”
Dick, true to form, responds carefully, “Well, the UAW is not interested in this legislation ourselves. We don’t see the point in forcing people to be in an election if they don’t want to be on the ballot. You guys made your choice to stay off the ballot and you’ll have to live with it. We’re all good Democrats and you don’t deserve to be treated like this. I’ll make a few calls and see what I can do.”
When the UAW makes a few calls in a political fight in Michigan, the political calculus of the fight changes. Up to this point, the state’s Democratic and Republican leadership has been able to move the legislation through every step of the legislative process and requires only one more vote in the Michigan House of Representatives to change the law to force the candidates on the ballot.
The stakes were high: An early defeat in Michigan could have stopped Obama's momentum cold. Berman waited anxiously for a call, and finally reported it to his staff: “They couldn’t get the votes... The Michigan legislation is dead. Barack’s name won’t be on the ballot.”