Howes: In Dingell, automakers lose best friend in Washington

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
With John Dingell's death at 92, Detroit's automakers officially lost the best friend they ever had in Washington.

Michigan’s legendary congressman, John D. Dingell, died the same day the “Green New Deal” appeared in Washington.

He would not have approved. A driving force behind the Clean Air, Medicare and Affordable Care acts, Dingell was nonetheless suspicious (to put it gently) of what he privately termed “the g-damned enviros” and the anti-manufacturing policies they predictably espouse.

The reason is simple: The Dearborn Democrat never forgot who he represented for nearly 60 years in Congress. He knew what industry drove his district's economy, how federal policy could strengthen his beloved automakers and impact their largest union, the United Auto Workers, and its members.

Better than most — and certainly more than the coastal types pushing the fanciful Green New Deal — he understood with absolute clarity how idealism disconnected from business reality could imperil jobs, complicate engineering, and drive costs higher. And the left wing of his party hated him for it, so much so that fellow Democrats voted to oust him from the chairmanship of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee he long led.

It was a nasty move, as good a sign as any that the election of Barack Obama more than 10 years ago confirmed the ascendancy of new Democrats who were not like Dingell. More likely boomers than bedrock of the Greatest Generation who helped the Allies triumph over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. More likely strong supporters of public-sector unions fueled by taxpayer dollars than industrial unions whose alliances with for-profit corporations informed Dingell's politics and word view. 

"A onetime board member of the National Rifle Association, he opposed most gun-control efforts over the decades, and he resisted many efforts at reining in car emissions to protect his state’s auto industry from regulations that might cut jobs," The Washington Post wrote in 2008 after Dingell was replaced as chairman by U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat.

"Through the decades, Dingell ran up against the growing clout of coastal liberals who ... wanted tougher emission limits and later advanced a cap-and-trade system opposed by auto manufacturers and coal plants throughout the Midwest."

None of this surprised Dingell. In his memoir, "The Dean: The Best Seat in the House," he wrote: "There are those who are displeased with the intersection of my environmental work and my work relative to the American auto industry. I possessed something that many of my environmentalist critics do not have: a deep and thorough understanding of how automobile manufacturing works."

He got that right. If there's anything that distinguished Dingell from the vast majority of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, it was that: He knew his auto business. He championed it. He understood the long cycle times and the need to balance industrial imperatives with increasing societal expectations for a cleaner environment, better fuel economy and responsible conservation.

Dingell retired from Congress in 2015, and his death last week means the auto industry finally lost the best friend in Washington it probably ever had. He was its protector and its conscience, unafraid to deliver hard political truths to CEOs and union leaders when the circumstances required. He was a partisan who practiced bipartisanship in service to his people, a loyalist to the interests of his hometown industry even when it became increasingly unpopular in this party to do so.

And, oh, did his hometown industry become unpopular — a decade ago when the Detroit Three and the UAW lobbied Dingell and his colleagues for taxpayer-funded bailouts to avert collapse. Or when General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Group LLC endured Chapter 11 bankruptcies ordered by the Obama auto task force and ridiculed mostly by Republicans representing Southern states and foreign-owned automakers operating there.

Or when automakers moved to satisfy consumer demand for pickups and SUVs instead of fielding the politically correct electric- and hybrid-powered vehicles preferred by those who don't actually buy cars. Drove — no, drives — the Environmental-Democratic complex nuts, the fact that the little people (with an assist from a revolution in U.S. oil production) refuse to hew to the Grand Vision of Small Cars for Everyone.

Imagine that: producers of the country's most regulated consumer product answering customer demand with more of what the market wants, not what their betters think they should have. Dingell died a Democrat; he didn't leave this party so much as it left him, embracing the politics of campus elites and the money of the coastal high-tech cabal at the expense of the industrial heartland.

There are prices for that — the most prominent of which was the election of President Donald Trump, thanks to voters in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Trump breached the Democrats' famous "Blue Wall" with help from one of Dingell's core constituencies, a fact the Green New Dealers might want to remember in their zeal to transform American society in just 12 years.

Change often fails to come in tidy little waves. A guy who lived 92 years, 60 of them representing portions of southeast Michigan in Congress, could tell you that — especially someone as marinated in the sweep of American history as Dingell, a prolific reader and raconteur.

In his valediction dictated the day he died, Dingell offers a warning for our times: "As I prepare to leave this all behind, I now leave you in control of the greatest nation of mankind and pray God gives you the wisdom to understand the responsibility you hold in your hands."

So do I, John. So do I. RIP.


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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.