[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
It is a sad day for Democrats. And I'm not even talking about the unbelievable and despicable acts of corruption committed by the hare-brained and silly-haired governor of Illinois. (Although every Democrat should stand up and call for his immediate impeachment if he refuses to resign.) No, I am referring to the Democrats completely caving in to George W. Bush on the auto bailout.
You would think that winning the White House and overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress would instill some backbone into Democrats on Capitol Hill. You would, of course, be wrong.
Consider this passage from a Yahoo/AP story on the bailout negotiations:
"One potential stumbling block remained. Democrats' were still refusing to scrap language, vehemently opposed by the White House, that would force the car manufacturers to drop lawsuits challenging tough emissions limits in California and other states.
That measure "kills the deal," said Dan Meyer, Bush's top lobbyist.
Senior Democratic aides acknowledged as much Tuesday and said they expected the provision to be dropped."
So let me get this straight: Bush, with his 29 percent approval rating, has the nerve to try and dictate to the Democrats, who just won convincing victories in last month's elections, what the terms of the bailout should be, and the result is ... the Democrats acceding to Bush's demands?Why? And how? How can the Democrats allow this to happen?
Bush wanted the bailout money to come from previously approved funds that were intended to help the automakers modernize their operations to produce greener cars, while the Democrats wanted the money to come from the $700 billion bank bailout allocations. Even though Detroit's survival is directly pegged to the companies developing the next generation of green vehicles (they have already failed in the market in developing cars consumers want to buy now), the Democrats caved.
Bush then wanted to appoint the so-called "car czar" to oversee the auto bailout money, without the Democrat-controlled Senate having the power to confirm the pick, even though Bush's term ends in a month and a half and, again, the public voted for a Democratic president and increases in the Democratic majorities in Congress. Not to mention that Bush's rhetoric has emphasized busting union contracts over the automakers making energy-efficient cars. And with all this in the hopper, what do the Democrats do? They cave, and Bush gets to pick the car czar.
But the real kick in the butt, the thing that absolutely demonstrates that congressional Democrats have no intestinal fortitude, is the issue quoted above, the requirement that the automakers drop lawsuits over emission standards.
Isn't the whole point of the bailout to let the American car companies survive so that they can make the next generation of energy-efficient cars? So why should they be allowed to fight emission standards? It should be a basic, rock-solid premise of the bailout that the automakers will be full partners in the energy policy of this country that will be seek to end dependence on foreign oil and build a green economy that will both revitalize the economy and help in the battle against global warming. By not agreeing to drop the fight over emission standards, the car companies are demonstrating loudly and clearly that they have no intention of really changing. And if that's true, they shouldn't get a penny of public money.
I just don't understand why the Democrats in Congress are caving so easily. And not just because their electoral success and Bush's all-time-low approval ratings put the party in a position of strength. What I really don't get is what the hammer is that is causing them to crumble. What is the "or else"? The answer you will hear is, "If we don't get money to General Motors and Chrysler, they will go into bankruptcy, and millions of Americans will lose their jobs." But if the party is truly looking out for the workers, why are they allowing Bush to demonize the union contracts? And, more importantly, the future of American auto workers depends on a viable industry emerging from this mess. That will not happen if money is handed to the companies so they can just continue their "business as usual" approach, one that has failed miserably and brought them to near extinction.
The Democrats in Congress should stand up and say the party supports a bailout, but only if it leads to a restructured, environmentally friendly, energy-intelligent, viable American auto industry. The deal the Democrats are striking with Bush doesn't do any of that, and congressional leaders should be strong enough to say that they won't support legislation that won't work. After all, in less than six weeks, the party will control the White House and enjoy large majorities in Congress.
By taking such an incomprehensibly weak position, the Democrats are ceding the high ground to their Republican rivals. In the Yahoo/AP article, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that the proposed deal "fails to require the kind of serious reform that will ensure long-term viability for struggling automobile companies." Sadly, he's right, even if he is making the statement for the wrong reasons. By caving on the emission standards and taking the money from a fund meant to modernize the automakers' operations, the Democrats are supporting a plan that does nothing to force the car manufacturers to make more energy-efficient cars.
And there is no evidence that Detroit really understands the need to change how they do business. Thomas Friedman wrote today in his New York Times column that General Motors passed on a revolutionary new electric car plan (believe it or not, a good analogy is to the iPod and iTunes store), developed by an American company, that is about to be rolled out for testing in several countries, and that has the support of Honda, Mitsubishi and Subaru. The current management of GM just doesn't get it.
The bottom line is that the three U.S. automakers have such a failed business model, they do not deserve federal assistance. If the government is going to intervene to save American jobs, then any plan should insist that the Big Three radically change their business models. General Motors, Chrysler and Ford do not seem to want to do that, and Bush is fine with letting them go along as they are (after all, Bush is a friend to the oil companies and no help in helping to combat the effects of global warming). It is the Democrats' place to step in and have the strength to say that if the automakers want taxpayer money, they have to make changes.
But the Democrats in Congress are not acting with strength. They are behaving as if they have no power and no options. And there is no reason for it. They are battling an unpopular president whose failed administration will be swept into the dustbin of history in 41 days, and yet they are losing the fight. From the behavior of congressional Democrats, you would think that John McCain was taking the oath of office on January 20.
As damaging to the party's reputation as Rod Blagojevich's corrupt antics are, his crimes are still the acts of one man. Far more damaging to the Democrats is the inability of leaders in Congress to stand up to a lame duck president and to allow $15 billion of taxpayer money to be handed to companies that have shown nothing but arrogance and incompetence. Everyone said that Barack Obama would have to face many difficult challenges in the early days of his presidency. Sadly, one of the biggest might be the weakness and ineffectiveness of his fellow Democrats in Congress.