Big Three can't play defense anymore

Big Three can't play defense anymore
Sen. Barack Obama's finger-wagging lecture this week to Detroit's
automakers shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's paying attention.
It's the future if maligned Motown doesn't start playing aggressive offense. Doesn't matter that an Illinois Democrat from the industrial Midwest, a man who would be president, shows scant understanding of the technology, market realities and human limitations of his remedies -- and then jumps on the campaign plane.
It's the formula: Whack Detroit, ignore details and draw praise from most any corner outside of, say, three Great Lakes cities, meaning Obama understands very well the times in which he's running for the nomination.
Judging by the climatic grandstanding so common now in Washington, he's not alone. Be it Republican or Democrat, be it a vote in Congress or a position on the campaign trail, the times are ripe for policies purported to slow climate change and improve national energy security.
Play offense, not defense
And if they undermine companies struggling to survive? That's our problem.
The path of least resistance runs right through Detroit's weakened automakers and over the United Auto Workers, presumed to back Democrats no matter how inimical their proposed policies may be to the union's future.
Doesn't matter that the union and its members are stalwarts of the Democrats. Doesn't matter that Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, remains the industry's protector on Capitol Hill. Doesn't matter how communities could be impacted, most of them Midwest backwaters to party elites.
None of it much matters because big, bad Detroit isn't so big or bad anymore. General Motors Co., Ford Motor Corp., Chrysler Group and even Toyota Motor Corp. cannot play defense in Washington on fuel economy, climate change and energy security. It won't work.
Viewed from the crumbling ruins of industrial America, Washington has reached an inflection point: There will be political movement on climate change and fuel economy, as the Senate Commerce Committee votes Tuesday on tougher federal fuel economy rules showed.
Step on the gas
Change will come quickly, too, even if some of it makes little sense. Take Obama's suggestion to pick up 10 percent of Detroit's crushing retiree health care costs, provided that fully half of the annual federal spending goes into improving fuel efficiency.
For DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group, which spends $1.56 billion on retiree health care, the federal help would amount to $78 million a year or $29 per vehicle, according to company calculations. Yippee.
Put aside the political risk of using taxpayer money to bail out GM, Ford and Chrysler, never a popular play in the "Detroit-is-for-losers" zeitgeist. The dough is piddling, proving how poorly politicians understand the enormity of the burden Detroit is shouldering.
It's past time for Detroit to step on the gas in Washington. Tired of Toyota getting all the props for being so fuel-efficient when its V-8 trucks are anything but? Then help drive the debate on fuel-efficiency, or it will drive you.
Worried that Democrats in Congress will stall a comprehensive environmental package to wait for a Democrat in the White House? Push for a broad deal now, as some of Detroit's automakers are doing, while Dingell is active, Detroit's balance sheets are iffy and you've got a decent technology story to tell.
Convinced that a 4 percent annual improvement in fuel economy starting in 2011 cannot be achieved? Start lining up your bankruptcy counsel; write the surrender-and-blame speeches; and remind the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (and their friends in Congress) just how massive your pension obligations are -- and how heavily they'd weigh on American taxpayers.
Doesn't need to end that way, or Obama's way. But doing nothing and hoping is not an option.

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