After today’s primaries in Michigan and Arizona, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, will turn their attention to Ohio and the other prizes on Super Tuesday. That likely will mean further discussion in these parts about the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler three years ago. Santorum opposes all bailouts, no matter, apparently, even dire circumstances. Not surprisingly, Romney has a more nuanced view.

The former Massachusetts governor and self-described “son of Detroit” favored sending the automakers into a private bankruptcy proceeding. He applauds the companies ultimately landing in bankruptcy court. What he faults is the use of public money, the $80 billion bailout launched by George W. Bush and completed by Barack Obama. Romney suggests that the public money amounted to “a sweetheart deal,” or “crony capitalism.”

Recall the events of late 2008 and early 2009, when the bailout decision was made. The economy was reeling, with American automakers in peril and the credit markets all but frozen. Ideally, General Motors and Chrysler would have entered bankruptcy on their own. The trouble is, there wasn’t private capital available to ensure the companies survived the proceeding. The federal government became the lender of last resort.

Without the public money, the automakers would have collapsed, shut down, the fallout cascading through Ohio, Michigan and the rest of this industrial region. Auto suppliers and other related firms would have been devastated. That explains why Ford, Honda and other competitors argued for the rescue. They understood the danger.

More than 1 million jobs were saved. General Motors and Chrysler have returned to profitability, the companies becoming leaner and more responsive in the restructuring, adding 207,000 jobs since emerging from bankruptcy. They have been moving down a track to repay taxpayers.

Noteworthy, too, is that the effort wasn’t somehow about a president saving a political ally in organized labor. The United Auto Workers made substantial concessions in the process. Consider the blow, then, if the federal government did not act when the economy was losing 750,000 jobs per month. The bailout benefited the auto industry and the country as a whole, something Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum would do well to admit.