Mitt Romney, headline writer

The upcoming Michigan primary has put Mitt Romney in an awkward position. Conventional wisdom says that the GOP candidate for president should do well in his home state, but he trails Rick Santorum in the polls there.

Part of the reason for Romney’s struggles in Michigan could be traced to this column that he wrote for The New York Times in November 2008. The topic was the auto industry’s struggles. In the op-ed piece, Romney argued against a federal bailout for Chrysler, GM and Ford, proposing a “managed bankruptcy” instead.

The headline on the column read: “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” The accompanying illustration showed a recycling bin containing the logos of the automakers. Romney, of course, didn’t write the headline or create the artwork. Journalists at the Times did.

Mitt Romney, GOP candidate for president

The column’s headline evokes another memorable one from the tabloid press of the 1970s: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” Each headline implies a lack of sympathy, if not outright callousness.

In addition, “Detroit” is journalistic and political shorthand for the U.S. auto industry, but the casual reader could interpret the New York Times headline to mean that Romney is referring to the entire city.

So now, more than three years later and with the auto industry on the rebound, Romney is being questioned about his opposition to the bailout. And it’s the headline, not the column’s content, that shapes the discussion.

Romney probably wishes that the copy editor who wrote that headline had chosen different words. Indeed, earlier this week, Romney told the editorial board of the Detroit Free Press that he would have recast the headline this way: “How To Save Detroit.”

It’s interesting to see a presidential candidate talk about headline writing and even suggest rewrites. If Romney’s run for the White House doesn’t work out, perhaps he could seek work as a slot editor at a newspaper.