America Keeps On Trucking

What do values have to do with gas mileage? A lot, as it turns out. The great "values" divide defined the 2000 presidential election map. Now it has transformed a debate over fuel-economy standards into a cultural showdown and, in the process, demolished any hope for a new federal energy policy.

Environmentalists favor higher fuel-economy standards as a way to reduce air pollution and combat global warming. September 11 gave them an even stronger argument: "We can completely rid ourselves of all of the dependence" on oil from Saudi Arabia by adopting a 35 miles per gallon fleet average, Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., observed. The nation's current fuel-economy average is just 24 mpg—and dropping.

Opponents of higher standards argue that the change would cost jobs and would discriminate against U.S. automakers. And when stricter standards came before the Senate, the proposal was portrayed as an attack on the American way of life.

Brandishing a photograph of a European mini-car, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., proclaimed: "We should not have the federal government saying you are going to drive the 'purple people eater' shown here.... This type of car may be fine in Boston or Chicago, but it is not fine in Lucedale, Mississippi, or Des Moines, Iowa."

Nonsense, liberals protested. Boosting fuel economy is not a matter of lifestyle. It's a matter of technology. "Here is the truth," Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., argued, brandishing a different photo. "This is the Ford Motor Company's own advertisement. They advertise an SUV ... that gives you all the room and power you want but uses half the gasoline."

The auto industry countered by mobilizing a powerful ally: rural America. "Farming's tough enough with healthy-size pickups," a farmer declared in a newspaper ad sponsored by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "Imagine hauling feed barrels around in a subcompact." The rallying cry was "Save our pickup trucks!"

"I submit to you, the back of the pickup truck is the 'think tank' of rural America," Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., said on the Senate floor. Think he's kidding? The pickup has proven to be a powerful symbol. Ask Sen. Fred D. Thompson, R-Tenn., who first campaigned in 1994 by driving around the state in one. Ask Victor Morales, the Texas Democrat who was propelled to victory in the 1996 Senate primary from his pickup truck. Or ask gubernatorial candidate Janet Reno, who's campaigning across Florida in hers.

According to the automakers' alliance, 18 of the 19 Democrats who voted against higher mileage standards are from states where fewer new cars were registered last year than new "light trucks," including pickups, vans, and SUVs.

The March 13 Senate vote on raising corporate average fuel economy standards turned into a collision of values. Both Senators from 13 states voted to toughen the CAFE standards. They represent much of the Northeast (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont); the Pacific Rim (California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington); plus Florida and Minnesota. Support for tougher fuel standards was concentrated in "National Public Radio America." The heartland, by contrast, didn't like the idea.

The Senate rejected higher mileage standards, by a 62-38 vote. Opponents had courted two key constituencies that had favored Al Gore in 2000: auto-producing states, such as Michigan, Maryland, and Wisconsin; plus suburban women.

Why do many women like to drive vehicles that resemble armored personnel carriers? Safety is a big reason. "We have to cope with road rage," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., asserted. "We have to cope with 18-wheelers ... just barreling down toward us."

Safety concerns were buttressed by a National Academy of Sciences report concluding that CAFE standards might have caused from 1,300 to 2,000 additional highway deaths in 1993 because they reduced average car size. Supporters of higher standards countered that greater fuel efficiency can now be obtained without significantly reducing vehicle size or weight.

For soccer moms, however, the argument was about convenience as well as safety. "American women love SUVs," according to Mikulski. "When you are a soccer mom and you are ... carpooling or have kids with gear, you need large capacity."

One suburban mother complained in an industry-sponsored radio ad, "The government wants to take away my SUV."

In the end, an economic issue turned into a cultural issue. Environmentalists got run off the road by a powerful alliance between rural America and the suburbs. The SUVs and the pickup trucks left the environmentalists in the dust. So what's left of a new energy plan? Mainly President Bush's proposal to allow limited oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And that initiative faces near-certain death in the Senate. If liberals have to give up on new fuel-efficiency standards and conservatives lose on new drilling, not much room for compromise will remain.

What about the national security argument for energy independence? There's a counterargument to that, too: If Americans are forced to drive smaller cars, the terrorists will have won.