The Election That Killed Detroit

November 3, 2008
If you walked by the old Tiger Stadium today, down Michigan Avenue in Detroit, you'd be hard-pressed to feel any optimism for tomorrow's election, no matter who wins. Tiger Stadium a very visible symbol of what's come to bear only a decade after Detroit pushed the pause button on its long, slow decline.

Though Obama is promising "change you can believe in" and McCain is offering up "fighting for America," no one's really out there fighting for the American auto industry in a meaningful way--one that won't end up costing American automakers thousands upon thousands of jobs and its place in the iconography of our country.

No matter what your choice is in the voter booth tomorrow, the election almost certainly means the death of the American car--as a part of the mythology that makes up who we are, what we admire, and what we take pride in as Americans.

No one's looking out for Detroit anymore, and no one cares. Listen to what voters are saying, in their apparent preference for Obama, who went to Detroit in 2007 and told them--in his clinical-firebrand way--that Detroit's misery was entirely its own fault, not partly Washington's. Listen to economists, some of whom dismiss the impact of the domestic brands: "I don't believe the auto sector deserves special consideration," one number-cruncher for Comerica told the Detroit News.

Detroit's days as a part of the iconography of America are numbered and the writing's been on the wall since 1975. Killed by classically bad legislation known as CAFE--the fleet fuel-economy law that didn't level the playing field, but leveled domestic car brands and directly benefited import automakers in the insidious way that water kills a house.

It's taken 30-odd years, but the effects are playing themselves out today. Look at Chrysler: no well-funded buyer in sight, no bailout from the Bush administration, and likely none forthcoming from the next president no matter who he is. Over at GM, the balance sheet is looking like McCain's chances in Virginia. Ford is semi-sustainable, able to saw off Volvo or Mazda to patch up its balance sheet, but no matter what, a shell of the muscular company that held more than 20 percent of the market in the mid-1990s.

The ground is crumbling underneath Michigan Avenue. CAFE will be joined by a reinvigorated union movement that demands jobs at whatever cost. Count the days in an Obama administration before secret ballots in workplaces are a thing of the past; it will be the sacrifice Detroit will have to make to stay in business. Life under McCain won't be fractionally better, but at least the tenor of his administration would welcome a DIY, bootstrapping approach.

Some of my colleagues are to blame here. The media does no service when, like the New York Times, they stupidly call on Detroit to "build the kind of cars people want to buy." Last time I checked, American car companies still controlled about half of all sales in the U.S--three companies against a dozen more. (In the words of the immortal Judge Judy, "You're an idiot.")

Detroit's built what many Americans have wanted to buy for decades. That pool is getting smaller, but when the psychology that "Detroit is wrong" took hold in the Carter years--fueled by terrible cars that gave way in the 1980s to some very good cars--it couldn't be shaken. That reflexive take on American brands has shaved 20 percent of market share and billions and billions off balance sheets. That attitude will certainly be encouraged under an Obama administration. Barack Obama is, after all, Jimmy Carter in a better suit. (McCain? A less telegenic G.H.W. Bush, if that's possible.)

There is only a little hope for Detroit's automakers. What they have to do--with unimaginable circumstances and very little time and money--is to recapture the minds of blue-state Prius heads, to recast Detroit as a place where new, great and cool things are made. GM was well on its way with the Volt--until the bottom fell out of financial markets.

Now they'll have to do it without much help from Washington, which would normally be an anathema to conservatives like me. But when your house is on fire, you beg for water--not a stern lesson in fire prevention. And you don't point out that your rescuers lit the match.

Cast your vote tomorrow, and by all means, vote your conscience. Just know, no matter what, we're all bit players in this snuff film.

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