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The Future Is Michigan
Of presidents and cars.


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Henry Payne

Detroit, Mich. — The presidential horserace has come and gone in Michigan, but the auto state will serve as a reminder of America’s future. On the eve of Michigan’s primary, the three top Republican candidates visited the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the intersection of two major national trends that will reverberate, for good and ill, for years to come.

First the good news. Michigan’s crashing of early party primaries has likely fundamentally changed the face of presidential campaigns for years to come. For ill, Michigan’s auto industry is at the epicenter once again of an assault on consumer freedoms not experienced since another activist Congress, 30 years ago amid another oil crisis, empowered a spasm of big-government regulation.

PRIMARY SYSTEM

Using his own state as a weapon, Michigan Senator Carl Levin has for years tried to break Iowa and New Hampshire’s grip on the primary process. In 2008 he finally succeeded, joining with state Republicans to make Michigan — in the face of national party protests — third in line on the primary calendar.

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“People have had their fill of Iowa and New Hampshire,” complains Levin, who says the two states are unrepresentative of America and unfairly wield power over the democratic process.

By defying empty party threats not to seat state convention delegates this summer, Michigan (and Florida later this month) will call the parties’ bluff, says Levin. Michigan Republican-party spokesman Bill Nowling agrees: “Michigan’s primary was a blow for other states that want to set the tone.”

As a consequence, states are now rightly seizing control of the primary process.

Then what? Levin predicts a lottery system for the first primary to be followed by regional primaries — a series of Super Tuesdays. By rotating the first primary — and the following regionals — no state will gain an issue monopoly as Iowa has with corn subsidies, Nowling adds. Both men agree that state negotiations will be difficult, and , in the end, some form of federal legislation will be required. But everyone, says Nowlong “agrees that the current system is broken.”

Four years from now, these political experts predict, the primary process will be transformed. The Iowa/New Hampshire monopoly will be history, doomed by Michigan’s bold blow in January, 2008.

AUTOS

Once a celebration of American individuality, the Detroit auto show floor this week was a bow to politically correct conformity. General Motors spoke of its “responsibility to society.” Ford changed its famous blue oval to green. Chrysler bragged of its “many exciting shades of green.” Mazda spoke of “sustainable zoom zoom.” There was no joy in Motorville.

U.S. automakers are under fire again. In 1974, with OPEC oil prices climbing and green doomsayers at the Club of Rome predicting a dearth of oil before the turn of the century, Congress drafted draconian mileage mandates that discriminated against Detroit’s full range of vehicles (Japanese imports only produced small cars at the time) and cost the industry thousands of jobs. Congress took their energy paternalism to the road as well, setting a federal 55 mph speed limit that, despite public ridicule, took 20 years to repeal.

In 2008, oil worries — once again provoked by Middle East crisis – have inspired a new Congress to enact “centralized command and control laws,” to quote one GM executive. After a 20-year-ceasefire brought on by the “74 rules” unintended consequences, a new, more powerful generation of greens have automakers in the cross-hairs.

This big-government redux is the product “of ignorance institutionalized by our public education system,” says veteran economist David Littman of Michigan’s Mackinac Center. “It’s ignorance accepting of government as the dictator of all good things.”

While automotive marketing finds environmental concerns consistently low on buyers’ list of priorities (after all, the average fuel economy of cars sold has not changed in 20 years) Washington has mandated a 40 -percent increase — to 35 mpg – in the next decade

Automakers are desperate to meet the new standards. Detroit’s show has taken on the feel of a science fair as automakers display plug-in hybrids, electric cars, and hydrogen platforms — all with potential but all untested in the marketplace. The hard reality is that only two cars today average 35 mpg or more. In ten years, all vehicles must average that, a goal that even industry critics like the Union for Concerned Scientists admit will add $2,500 per car (GM estimates $5,000).

Consumers will have no choice but to buy them — just as greens have dictated their choice of toilets and, soon, light bulbs.

But the real prize in this energy jihad is Washington supremacy over fuels.

At a Sunday news conference, GM announced an investment in Coskata, a Chicago firm that – backed by green venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. — claims it can produce affordable ethanol. By government edict preferably.

Coskata and politicians ranging from Senators Obama to President Bush are intrigued by the government-compelled transformation of Brazil’s fuel market to sugar ethanol. As a step, the Bush administration has mandated U.S. refineries produce 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022. Government mandates production – generously subsidized by taxpayer dollars – and lays the ground to prescribe market technology.

Determined to “take the automobile out of the environmental equation,” GM CEO Rick Wagoner launched GM’s exhibit with a call for ending U.S. oil dependence, suggesting “it’s time for the U.S. government to do it through regulation.”

Coskata’s vice president for marketing, Wes Bolsen, says this might mean converting the existing fuel infrastructure by mandating “that half of all gas stations have an ethanol pump.”

When asked if this doesn’t violate the property rights of private businesses, Bolsen says “oil companies are going to try and stop progress until somebody forces them to do it.”

Economist Littman is resigned to the new era of regulation. But, as happened after the 1970s excesses, he believes new leaders will emerge to fight for free markets. Who knows, maybe a lottery-winning, opening Michigan primary will be the key venue.

— Henry Payne is a writer and the editorial cartoonist for the
Detroit News.



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