clinton sanders
Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders at the start of their debate in Flint, Michigan, Sunday, March 6, 2016. Reuters/Jim Young

In her attempt to win Tuesday's presidential primary in Michigan, Hillary Clinton has pioneered an innovative new message amid rising anti-Wall Street sentiment: At debates and in a campaign ad, she is portraying her vote to funnel hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to her financial industry donors as a move to help blue-collar auto workers.

Few contest the fact that the government money that flowed to domestic auto manufacturers in 2009 helped save those companies. The debate, though, surrounds the specific legislative instrument used to release that money — the so-called Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

That George W. Bush-created program — backed by Clinton — was hastily passed in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis and was designed primarily to help the financial industry, which received much of the program’s money. In recent days, the former secretary of state has argued that because a comparatively small portion of TARP was subsequently used to help car companies, her 2009 Senate vote for legislation to keep TARP money flowing showed her commitment to helping auto industry workers. She has also suggested that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ vote against the same bill proves he did not support the industry.

Eight other Democrats, including Wisconsin's Russell Feingold and Indiana's Evan Bayh — who represented states with General Motors factories -- also voted against that TARP bill, and Sanders had previously supported separate standalone auto bailout legislation. Many TARP critics argued that the Treasury-administered program had too few strings attached and that therefore taxpayer money would end up unduly benefiting the wealthy. Years later, evidence from the auto industry suggests some of those predictions came true.

Accounting for recouped funds, the auto bailout cost taxpayers more than $9 billion. In 2013, an auto industry-linked think tank projected that the government’s move to bail out car manufacturers did rescue up to 2.6 million jobs. Many of those jobs, however, do not pay as well as they once did. A report by the National Employment Law Project concluded that “new jobs created in the auto sector are worse than the ones we lost.” At auto-parts maker Delphi, which also received bailout funds, 20,000 non-union retirees saw pension cuts.

Those cuts contrast with the giant profits made by billionaire hedge fund managers who turned the Delphi bailout into a lucrative investment strategy. After taxpayer cash and pension cuts helped stabilize the company, hedge funds that had obtained equity in the company at a reduced price hit the jackpot when the firm went public. Bloomberg News later reported that the Obama administration authorized the bailout of Delphi even as the company engaged in so-called “inversion,” shifting its headquarters to Britain and reducing its American tax bill by up to $110 million annually.

Meanwhile, as workers’ wages were cut, executives at one of the bailed-out firms continued reaping huge compensation packages. In 2011 — just a few years after the bailout — GM’s CEO was paid $7.7 million, and another four company executives were each paid a combined total of more than $22 million, according to USA Today. Three years later, the government’s inspector general overseeing bailout money released a report finding that federal regulators “significantly loosened executive pay limits, resulting in excessive pay” at GM and its affiliated lender, Ally, even though “the companies were not repaying TARP in full and taxpayers were suffering billions of dollars in losses.”

In a separate report, the inspector general also noted that in prior years, the "excessive compensation" for executives at bailed-out auto companies had not been stopped by federal officials.

Then, in 2015, came hedge funds’ push to force GM to buy back billions of dollars worth of stock. That initiative — spearheaded by an official on Obama’s auto task force who then became a hedge fund adviser — ultimately forced the company to spend $5 billion to reacquire its own stock. That move, said some experts, saw the government absorb billions in losses when it sold GM, only to watch the company then spend money to inflate its share price in a way that benefited Wall Street investors while potentially imperiling the company’s credit rating.

"Taxpayers and workers brought GM out of bankruptcy, yet it is the hedge funds that will reap the biggest rewards,” wrote University of Massachusetts’ William Lazonick and Academic-Industry Research Network’s Matt Hopkins in a widely circulated report in Harvard Business Review that year. “Stock buybacks manipulate the stock market and leave most Americans worse off. In this case, it is clear that what is good for the hedge funds is bad for the United States.”