When the Ford Motor Company introduced the Edsel in September 1957, they made a huge deal about claiming it was a totally new car with features never before offered on an automobile and styling that defied convention. The company created a separate division for Edsel, invested millions of dollars in advertising and ballyhoo, and the world waited with bated breath to see this revolutionary new car.
Well, we all know what happened.
The 1958 Edsel was basically a redressed Ford or Mercury depending on which model was ordered, and the revolutionary new features turned out to be either gadgets that could be picked up from the J.C. Whitney catalogue or gimmicks such as the floating-dome speedometer and the push-button transmission mounted in the steering wheel hub that were a distraction and a danger to the driver.
And the car was not very well-built. It was rushed into production and had flaws as it came off the line. So despite all the pre-sale hoopla, it turned out to be just another car with an appeal to no one.
The Edsel came to mind when I read what Donald Trump’s “major economic policy” had in store. Delivered at the Detroit Economic Club and read from a Teleprompter, Mr. Trump revived tried-and-failed economic ideas that were clunky old GOP policies such as massive tax cuts for the rich, simplifying the tax code, and ballooning the deficit, all paid for by the yuuge number of jobs that would be created out of thin air; nothing we haven’t heard from Republicans from Herbert Hoover to Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. The difference yesterday was that, like the Edsel, it was dressed up in Trump drag with the usual promises of being the greatest economic restoration since the New Deal.
Mr. Trump also promised to reduce regulations on business — another oldie but a goodie from the 1950’s — and bring back coal and oil as energy sources. (At one point I had to laugh out loud when he said that Hillary Clinton, who supports renewable energy, represented the past while he, the advocate of coal and oil, represented the future. That would be true if this was 1816.) He also wants to wall us off from the world in terms of trade — an idea that runs counter to most of the Republican mantra of free trade — and slap tariffs on countries such as China. Gee, I wonder how China would retaliate?
We have seen the results of Mr. Trump’s economic ideas. They were the backbone of Ronald Reagan’s administration which resulted in a massive deficit and eleven tax hikes during his term. The first Clinton administration was able to pull it back and hand George W. Bush a surplus, which he promptly pissed away just in time to trigger the 2008 recession from which we’re barely recovered. It’s also been done in microcosm in the state of Kansas where Gov. Sam Brownback has turned a prosperous state into a prairie version of the Great Depression. (When Gov. Brownback launched his plan, he boasted that Kansas would become a model for other states to follow. Yes; watch what he did and do the exact opposite. Good modeling.)
It didn’t take the Ford Motor Company more than about six months to realize that the Edsel was a disaster. The Edsel Division was merged with Lincoln and Mercury and the 1959 models were cut back to one basic car with different trim levels, and by the time the 1960 model year came around, it was nothing more than a Ford with different trim. The plug was mercifully pulled a month after the 1960’s were rolled out and Edsel became a synonym for a colossal failure on every scale: scope, objective, and results.
But at least Ford knew when to get out. The Republicans keep badge-engineering their 1958 models with new gimmicks, hoping that there’s an electorate that will fall for it yet again.
Footnote for antique car fans: A vestige of Edsel survived when Ford brought out the Comet in 1960. Originally intended as the Edsel version of the compact Ford Falcon, the Comet was a stand-alone brand sold through Lincoln-Mercury dealers and was an instant success, selling more in the first year than all the Edsels in its three-year run. In 1962 it became the Mercury Comet and was sold in various generations until 1977.