Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sunday Reading

Still a Classic — “Cash for Clunkers” may deplete the future of the antique automobile hobby.

Cars that have earned the status of classics have something to say. Enormous, grandly decorated Packards expressed the cocksure attitude of America between the wars. The jutting tailfins of Cadillacs spoke of the brash confidence that prevailed in a country on its way to landing men on the moon.

Posterity will probably not be so kind to the mass-market vehicles of the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s, many of them so hastily engineered and shoddily built that they have earned the nickname “clunkers.” But do any hold the potential to become keepsakes, or is it just as well that pretty soon more than a million will have been crushed and shredded under the cash-for-clunkers system?

The program, extended last week with a $2 billion cash injection, is bound to thin the herd. But many purists in the car collector community are saying “good riddance.” There were exceptions in this generation of cars, they admit, but the generic engines, milquetoast styling and ubiquitous plastics made the cars as disposable as $29 DVD players. None built after 1974, when stringent federal safety and pollution laws forced a scramble for drastic design changes, would constitute an investment-grade purchase, they say.

The traditional qualities that define a classic — brilliant engineering, noteworthy heritage and designs that lift our emotions — are simply absent from these cars. Built in large numbers, they lack even the appeal of relative rarity, so their negligible value makes them candidates for cash-for-clunker rebates.

Still, there are those who worry. Eddie Alterman, editor in chief of Car and Driver, points out that the rebate program’s eligibility window begins in 1984, just as cars were starting, if ever so tentatively, to get good again. This new generation represented the beginning of the industry’s recovery from its hurried efforts to comply with regulatory changes, and laid the foundation for powerful and efficient cars that became available as the automobile entered its second century.

“It would be a shame to wipe out the rootstock of all the great cars that followed, to see a utopian symbol like the Jeep Grand Wagoneer or a car with the rich personality of an Alfa Romeo 164 get clobbered,” he said.

On the other hand, this means that my 1988 Pontiac 6000 LE Safari station wagon will be even more valuable. The hobby, though, will always have Pebble Beach.

Continued below the fold.

Town Brawls — If the manufactured outrage last week has an impact on Congress, it may not be in the way the demonstrators were hoping for.

In some respects, last week’s town halls — fueled on the right by antitax groups backed partly by industry, and on the left by unions — are the logical outgrowth of decades of American political activism. Community organizing is nothing new; President Obama made an early career of it. The civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the anti-abortion movement, the rise of the religious right — all grew out of grassroots campaigns conducted by methodical organizers.

Accusations of phony grassroots campaigns — “Astroturf,” in Washington argot — also are not new. When Richard Viguerie, the conservative strategist, pioneered the use of direct mail to raise money in the 1970s, he quickly came under attack for creating “the impression of a mass uprising when there were organizers behind it,” said Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University.

But last week’s “town brawls,” as the news media dubbed them, do seem to represent a shift. Instead of each side’s holding rallies and protests, the activism seemed directed personally at lawmakers, with the aim of overwhelming them. Mr. Kratovil, the Maryland Democrat, opposes the health care legislation moving through the House. But he was unable to get his point across, he said. “They simply want to yell when you talk.”

Some might call it democracy in action, but there is a risk. If the pattern continues, lawmakers could grow suspicious, refusing to believe that their encounters with voters are genuine.

“When a politician can’t tell what’s grassroots and what’s Astro, that’s dangerous,” Mr. Zelizer said. “In the long term, that could undermine the potential of grassroots mobilizers to change things. At a certain point, it’s crying wolf. No one is going to believe it’s real.”

Frank Rich — You only thought Barack Obama was an agent of change.

The making of legislative sausage is never pretty. The White House has to give to get. But the cynicism being whipped up among voters is justified. Unlike Hillary Clinton, whose chief presidential campaign strategist unapologetically did double duty as a high-powered corporate flack, Obama promised change we could actually believe in.

His first questionable post-victory step was to assemble an old boys’ club of Robert Rubin protégés and Goldman-Citi alumni as the White House economic team, including a Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, who failed in his watchdog role at the New York Fed as Wall Street’s latest bubble first inflated and then burst. The questions about Geithner’s role in adjudicating the subsequent bailouts aren’t going away, and neither is the angry public sense that the fix is still in. We just learned that nine of those bailed-out banks — which in total received $175 billion of taxpayers’ money, but as yet have repaid only $50 billion — are awarding a total of $32.6 billion in bonuses for 2009.

It’s in this context that Obama can’t afford a defeat on health care. A bill will pass in a Democrat-controlled Congress. What matters is what’s in it. The final result will be a CAT scan of those powerful Washington interests he campaigned against, revealing which have been removed from the body politic (or at least reduced) and which continue to metastasize. The Wall Street regulatory reform package Obama pushes through, or doesn’t, may render even more of a verdict on his success in changing the system he sought the White House to reform.

The best political news for the president remains the Republicans. It’s a measure of how out of touch G.O.P. leaders like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are that they keep trying to scare voters by calling Obama a socialist. They have it backward. The larger fear is that Obama might be just another corporatist, punking voters much as the Republicans do when they claim to be all for the common guy. If anything, the most unexpected — and challenging — event that could rock the White House this August would be if the opposition actually woke up.

Doonesbury — New talent.