Politics & Policy

Driving While Campaigning

What's in your candidate's garage.

Detroit — As Michigan votes this week, the automobile has never been more at the center of the American consciousness. Once upon a time, a candidate’s car was a symbol of his patriotism — of loyalty to Michigan autoworkers and their Motor City. But today political fashion defines patriotism as freeing America from foreign oil or saving the planet.

Green, it seems, has become as American as red, white, and blue. “Where was your vehicle built?” must now share billing with “What would Jesus drive?”

Disciples of Al Gore, Democrats preach that Detroit “must do the right thing.” But it is hardly a partisan sentiment. Indeed, it was President Bush who spearheaded Washington’s recent spasm of central planning, mandating that all vehicles average 35 miles per gallon by 2020.

Disclosing their vehicle of choice is a rare opportunity for presidential candidates to show Michigan voters that their personal priorities are consistent with their public policies. We know they can talk the talk — but do they practice what they preach?

Let’s start with the preacher in the race.

The Republicans

Mike Huckabee. “As Republicans, we need to speak out more on the environment,” Huckabee told the Detroit News recently in defending his support for hiking federal fuel-efficiency laws. “Unless we do, we’ll never get to energy independence.”

When it comes to his own vehicles, however, the Baptist minister strays from his scripture. “Our main car is a 2007 Chevy Tahoe and my vehicle is a Chevrolet Silverado truck,” he says, listing two of the biggest SUVs (16 miles per gallon and 12 miles per gallon respectively) on the planet. Would this strict pro-lifer be so hypocritical about a family abortion choice?

John McCain. The 2000 Michigan primary winner sounds like he’s channeling Al Gore when it comes to global warming, and he thinks Detroit needs some straight talk. Mileage mandates? He says they’re “overdue.” Electric cars? “I think they’d sell like hotcakes,” he says.

What kind of vehicles do you and your wife drive?

“My wife drives a Lexus,” he says, unafraid to wave a foreign flag on Detroit soil. “My only claim to fame is that my daughter Meghan owns a Prius hybrid. That’s our only testimony to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

No Big Three vehicles?

“No.”

What do you drive yourself?

“I drive a Cadillac.”

That’s a Big Three car.

“I drive the…what? (an aide tells him he has a (20 miles per gallon) Cadillac sedan) It’s been a very good car.”

So green is McCain, he’s apparently neglected to do his homework on American-made cars!

Mitt Romney. McCain’s straight talk has given opponent Romney a straight line of attack. Romney opposes the 35 miles per gallon fuel diktat (originally conceived by McCain and John Kerry in 2000) because it would “help the foreign manufacturers and hurt us.”

Romney, the son of a Detroit auto executive, says Michigan issues are “personal.” He displays no moral qualms about what he drives. He obviously likes cars, and buys American. The Michigan native raves about his powerful Ford Mustang convertible and his practical big Chevy pickup. What does his wife drive? A Cadillac crossover vehicle. Unlike McCain, he knows the Caddy lineage.

Ron Paul. True to his Libertarian roots, Paul detests Washington meddling on mileage standards. The Texas congressman drives a Buick in DC, a secondhand Lincoln and Ford truck back home, and…he keeps a 1979 Chevette for “sentimental reasons.”

Rudy Giuliani. A New Yorker right out of central casting. The former mayor says he doesn’t own a car: “I don’t drive. I navigate,” he told the Associated Press.

The Democrats

Barack Obama. The Illinois senator set the tone for Democratic hypocrisy when he assaulted Big Three automakers last May before the Detroit Economic Club.

“While foreign competitors were investing in more fuel-efficient technology for their vehicles,” he said, “American auto makers were spending their time investing in bigger, faster cars. The auto industry is on a path that is unacceptable and unsustainable. And America must take action to make it right.”

This finger-wagging came from a speaker who arrived in a Secret Service convoy of Chevy Suburban SUVs (12 miles per gallon). While such vehicles are necessary for Obama’s lifestyle, however, he seems oblivious to their convenience for, say, a large family.

More embarrassing was the car Obama had in his own garage: A powerful, gas-guzzling, 340 HP Chrysler 300C. When his choice was exposed, he bought a more politically-correct Ford Escape SUV Hybrid (27 miles per gallon).

John Edwards. The Escape hybrid is also the choice of Edwards who was inconveniently caught driving a bigger SUV after a speech in which he suggested light trucks be banned. At least Edwards is loyal to his union worker base: His other vehicle is an 18 mpg Chrysler Pacifica.

Hillary Clinton. Like Barack Obama, Hillary is also on big truck, Secret Service detail. Like ex-Veep Gore, the Clintons’ personally own a fashionable Mercury Mariner hybrid. However, the SUV doesn’t get anywhere near the 55 miles per gallon (much less 35 miles per gallon) she advocated last year when the Senate was debating fuel economy.

So, dear voter, if the vehicle you drive to the polls this Tuesday doesn’t pass muster with your moral superiors, take heart: It likely gets better gas mileage than the behemoths they’re driving.

Henry Payne is a writer and editorial cartoonist for The Detroit News. Richard Burr is Detroit News op-ed editor.

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