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Don't force green cars on automakers

David Frum

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

KAI RYSSDAL: Detroit's problems come during interesting political times. The Big Three CEOs are due back in Washington next Tuesday. They're going to deliver the bailout justification that House and Senate leaders asked them for.

Meanwhile, power within Congress is shifting. Advocates for the industrial economy are losing some of there clout. Commentator David Frum worries that could mean big changes for the Big Three.


DAVID FRUM: While President-elect Barack Obama was collecting applause for his accomplished and centrist economic team, House Democrats were sending a very different kind of signal.

The House Democratic caucus has voted to eject John Dingell of Michigan from the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and to replace him with Henry Waxman of California.

The 82-year-old Dingell is often thought of as the last New Dealer. A proud wearer of the union label, but also a staunch defender of gun rights. A leader on civil rights but unpersuaded on global warming, Dingell was above all else the great congressional champion of industrial America.

Waxman is literally the congressman from Hollywood. For him, environmental issues have always come first.

As automakers beg for aid from Washington, the passage of the most powerful gavel in the House of Representatives to Waxman from Dingell signals a radical change of orientation. Speaker Pelosi has already spoken of making aid to the car industry conditional on a switch to high-mileage vehicles. New York Senator Chuck Schumer says of the auto industry's future: "We already know what that future is: The plug-in hybrid electric car."

It's impressive that a career politician would be so certain of the future of an industry in which he never worked a day in his life.

Observers used to distinguish between "old Democrats" like Dingell, who still believed in government control, and "new Democrats" who supposedly understood markets. But while Waxman may be a generation younger than Dingell, his thinking is no more modern. Waxman and his associates in Congress are just as ready to dictate and regulate and micro-manage as the old New Deal wing. They just dictate and regulate and micro-manage for very different purposes.

Here's a market alternative: raise gas taxes. Then let consumers and producers figure out for themselves how best to conserve. Maybe the answer will turn out to be as simple as smaller cars, closer neighborhoods, and more walking. Or maybe it will be as futuristic as personal space packs. We don't know. And since we don't know, we shouldn't be dictating to industry as if we did.

RYSSDAL: David Frum is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His most recent book is "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again."

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