Presidential candidates rather silent on auto issues

Keith Laing, and Melissa Nann Burke

Washington — Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton have said relatively little about automotive issues even as they race to win votes in car-dependent Michigan.

Automakers are still awaiting clarity on what auto policy under a President Trump or President Clinton would look like, said John Bozzella, president and CEO of the Association of Global Automakers, which represents international automobile manufacturers.

Trade is an exception. Trump has repeatedly promised to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and, if unsuccessful, scrap the trade pact with Canada and Mexico and slap a tariff as low as 10 percent, or as high as 35 percent, on vehicles and parts made in Mexico and imported into the United States.

“It used to be cars were made in Flint and you couldn’t drink the water in Mexico,” Trump said last Monday in suburban Grand Rapids, repeating a line he has offered in Michigan before. “Now the cars are made in Mexico and you can’t drink the water in Flint.”

Clinton has indicated a vague desire to overhaul NAFTA, and both Trump and Clinton have opposed the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership that includes a few key Asian countries. Trump said the 12-nation deal would be a “disaster” for the auto industry, while Clinton rejects it in part because of weak standards for automotive “rules of origin.”

“Despite Donald Trump’s curious call for a 35-percent tariff, we have not heard much from either presidential candidate about automotive-specific issues,” Bozzella said. “We would like to learn more about their plans to ensure the auto sector remains healthy and vibrant.”

Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for Kelley’s Blue Book, said the candidates’ positions on issues such as trade are more similar when compared with the stances of recent presidential candidates.

“Both are in some ways protectionists,” Nerad said. “It doesn’t appear that the campaign is being waged on policy issues anyway.”

When asked where the candidates stand on fuel economy standards and other auto-specific issues, the campaigns have been either unresponsive or ambiguous.

Trump’s campaign did not respond. Clinton’s campaign emphasized her climate-change plan, which promises to “defend, implement and extend” pollution and fuel-efficiency standards, including those for cars and trucks.

But scattered clues from Twitter and the campaign trail show how Clinton and Trump have reacted to past auto issues.

Differences emerge

The bailouts of Chrysler and General Motors in 2008 and 2009 by both president George W. Bush and president Barack Obama have illuminated differences between the two candidates.

While campaigning in 2007, Clinton pledged to offer domestic automakers $20 billion in low-interest government loans to help retool factories. She also supported federal funding for the 2008-09 rescue of the auto industry, which received $85 billion in assistance while it struggled during the Great Recession.

“She believes we need to put in place investments that grow our economy and create good-paying jobs, and hold Wall Street accountable, so we don’t again face the kind of financial crisis or Great Recession that risks the auto industry or millions of middle-class jobs,” a Clinton campaign official said.

In contrast, Trump has shifted his stance after initially supporting the bailout in 2008 while his vice presidential pick, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, criticized it.

In 2008, Trump told Fox News’ Neil Cavuto that the government should stand behind the auto companies “100 percent.”

“You cannot lose the auto companies. They’re great. They make wonderful products,” he said.

Trump later said Obama’s bailout was poorly negotiated, suggesting it led to losses in U.S. manufacturing.

“Obama is a terrible negotiator. He bails out Chrysler and now Chrysler wants to send all Jeep manufacturing to China — and will!” Trump tweeted in November 2012, as Chrysler explored building Jeeps in China.

Trump did not explain that Chrysler was also expanding Jeep production in Toledo. The Jeeps now made in China are for the Asian market.

Chrysler’s Ralph Gilles, now global head of design, responded to Trump on Twitter saying, “@realDonaldTrump you are full of (expletive).”

When asked about the bailout before a Birch Run rally in August 2015, the New York real estate developer said the two automakers could have survived through a normal bankruptcy or the government-expedited filing.

“You could have let it go bankrupt, frankly, and rebuilt itself,” Trump said. “And a lot of people think that is the way it should have happened. Or you could have done it the way it went. I could have done it either way. Either way would have been acceptable. I think you would have ended up ultimately in the same place.”

Mum on emission rules

The candidates have barely touched on the proposed gas-mileage rules which take effect with the 2017 model year. The new emissions rules call for ramping up from the current fleet-wide average of about 34 miles per gallon for cars and trucks in 2016, to the goal of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

The emissions rules for 2022-25 are set to be reviewed at the request of automakers in 2018. In a July report, federal agencies said automakers may only be able to achieve an average of between 50 and 52.6 miles per gallon by the deadline.

Automakers that don’t meet the higher emission standards will be fined $5.50 for each one-tenth of a mile per gallon that their average fuel economy falls short of the standard for a model year, multiplied by the total volume of vehicles that are in the fleet that fail to meet the new requirements.

When asked about the fuel rules, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson said the federal government shouldn’t be setting them.

“Government, when it gets involved in this, kind of ends up picking winners and losers,” Johnson told The Detroit News during a Friday campaign stop in Detroit. “... I don’t think they do a good job of it.”

“Right now we’ve got a glut of oil, and I just believe in the free market,” he added. “How long are cars going to be propelled by gasoline as opposed to electric? I think the entire car industry is scrambling in that regard.”

Clinton has left possible clues about how she might handle fuel economy. In a late 2007 speech in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, she proposed hiking fuel-economy standards to a combined fleet-wide average of 55 miles a gallon by 2030.

Clinton also proposed legislation that became law mandating for better rear-visibility standards. The Obama administration has since released a rule that new cars will be required to have rear cameras by 2018.

Trump’s campaign website does not include the fuel economy rules on a list of issues he has addressed since launching his presidential bid. But he has belittled the movement to slow global warming or climate change.

“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” Trump said in a Nov. 6, 2012, tweet.

“Our planet is freezing, record low temps, and our GW scientists are stuck in ice,” he tweeted on Jan. 1, 2014.

The Trump and Clinton campaigns haven’t said much about self-driving cars, an area where the Obama administration has proposed calling for states to let federal regulators create rules for autonomous vehicles while state and local governments continue to regulate drivers behind the wheel.

The next administration would have to evaluate public suggestions during a 60-day comment period for the proposed regulations, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said.

“We want to do a wide sweep of the stakeholder input,” Foxx said in mid-October, “and so I suspect that will have to happen in the first part of the next administration.”

Staff Writers Robert Snell and Jonathan Oosting contributed.