DETROIT–Few possessions tell more about a person than the car he drives. And as the Michigan presidential caucuses loom, voters in the auto state are keen to know the products Democratic candidates favor.
Coming to Michigan can be a disorienting journey for Democrats these days since the party has come to regard the automobile–sport utes, especially–as a sort of demon released from Pandora’s industrial box. Indeed, the party’s standard bearer the last go round, Al Gore, pronounced the internal-combustion engine a “mortal threat to the security of every nation that is more deadly than that of any military enemy we are ever again likely to confront.” Whew! The Green Left of the party has become a political mirror image of the Republican’s Religious Right, demanding that candidates take moral stands denouncing SUVs as both a threat to Mother Earth and a deadly needle filled with addictive Middle East crude.
Still, the automobile’s manufacturing power gives it political virtue. Its assembly employs a large, if decreasing, number of union workers, a political lobby with plenty of party clout. And many of the jobs that remain here depend on SUVs.
Desperate to show their concern for the disappearing labor dinosaur, the candidate chameleon must quickly turn from green to red with rage when told that American internal-combustion-engine jobs are being shipped overseas. “Don’t be fuelish” must coexist with “Buy American.”
It’s a tall order for any Michigan-bound Democrat. Does this year’s crop practice what they preach? A look in their parking spaces is revealing.
John Kerry. The frontrunner would seem especially vulnerable in Michigan. A liberal, public-transit-served Bostonian, Kerry has worn his scorn for the auto industry on his sleeve. He has led the Washington fight to mandate that SUVs–as well as cars–get 36 miles to the gallon on average, well above today’s 21-mpg standard. This reform of the so-called CAFÉ laws (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) is hated in Michigan where thousands of jobs were lost when CAFE was first enacted in the 1980s, forcing the Big Three to cut production of their larger, more profitable autos.
A look at Kerry’s cars, however, suggests the senator leaves his green principles on the Senate floor. “Well, we have a couple of Chrysler minivans,” begins Kerry the seasoned politician, who long ago learned to buy American brands only. “We have a Jeep. . . and a PT Cruiser up in Boston. . .and we have some SUVs. . . and an old Dodge 600 that I keep in the Senate. . . and. . . .” And suddenly, Kerry the Average American Buyer is Kerry the Blueblood with more cars than he can count. And that’s not his only political faux pas. His PT Cruiser is built in Mexico. Oops.
When prodded about whether he buys anything other than Chrysler products, Kerry is quick to add: “Oh yes, I also have a Chevy. A big Suburban.” Stop the presses! The King of CAFÉ owns the most notorious gas-guzzler in the U.S. fleet, GM’s super-sized 13-mpg SUV! The moral high ground is lost.
Wesley Clark. Well, he’s no John Kerry. A political neophyte who launched his campaign with little homework into the issues, his campaign has been plagued by charges that he’s an empty military suit. That shallowness–and an independent streak–are perfectly summed up in his choice of vehicles. “I drive a Mazda Miata and a Mercedes E320,” states the general. Both foreign-made. Both good cars. Both political disasters: Neither soccer moms nor NASCAR dads drive Miatas or Mercedes.
Howard Dean. Like many Northeast lefties, he thinks he knows more about the auto industry than the auto industry does. “I think the technology exists in the auto industry (to make more fuel-efficient cars),” he says confidently. “Ford is coming out with an SUV that gets 37 mpg” so they should have no problem when he raises CAFÉ standards. Of course, Ford–nor the rest of the industry–is anywhere near making 37-mpg SUVs that can sell in quantity.
Dean apparently favors government regulation of autos because he himself is incapable of self-restraint. Dean admits he owns “two Ford Explorers.” Miles per gallon: 15. Stop me before I SUV again!
Dennis Kucinich. The middle-America Buckeye with the heart of a left-coast Californian. He’s the tree-hugger of the bunch, declaring his support for “research and investment in ‘alternative’ energy sources and making them mainstream. Clean energy technologies will produce new jobs. We can soon have hybrid and fuel cell cars dominating the market.” But alternate-fuel electric hybrids aren’t waiting for President Kucinich. They are already mainstream in America. There’s the Toyota Prius hybrid, the Honda Civic hybrid, Honda Insight hybrid. . . .
And what does Kucinich drive? A good old-fashioned, gasoline-powered Ford Focus. Well, at least it’s made in America.
John Edwards is the only candidate who didn’t answer the car question (perhaps Michigan is too far north for the avowed southern candidate), but his press clippings are littered with jaunts in minivans and SUVs. An owner of four homes, Edwards’s multimillionaire-lawyer lifestyle suggests a commitment to conspicuous consumption. No wonder fuel-economy issues rank well down his issue list. Like his overall green agenda (“Preserve clean air. Keep water pure.”) his auto stance is also vague and perfunctory: “Edwards supports increased fuel efficiency standards for cars.”
So take heart, dear voter. Before that candidate tut-tuts the gas-guzzling, planet-spoiling, bone-crunching SUV you drove to the caucus this weekend, you might ask him: “What’s in your garage?”
–Henry Payne is a freelance writer in Detroit and an editorial cartoonist for the Detroit News.