Between the Lines: Daniel Howes on Presidental Help

Daniel Howes writing for The Detroit News sets the gold standard for automotive journalism. His news pieces are comprehensive, insightful, balanced and eloquent. Lately, Howes has eased-off the hard news and ramped-up his commentary. Specifically, he s written a series of columns analyzing Motown s woes, from GM s fall from grace to the region s faltering fortunes. While keeping one foot in objective journalism, Howes has gradually become the best (if not the only) cheerleader The Big Three have got. And now he wants a word with the President.

"Help us Mr. President" begins with a recap of the Commander-in-Chief s recent rebuff to Detroit s struggling automakers. Howes puts his quote marks around W s statement that Detroit needs to become more relevant and learn how to compete. And then the counter attack.

If only it were that simple, Mr. President. Yes, Detroit's automakers and their biggest union, the United Auto Workers, have been undermined by their manifold mistakes. They're also slaves to their obligations to hundreds of thousands of workers who expect pensions and health care in retirement — and are getting them.
A literal reading of this passage indicates that Howes considers both the automakers AND the unions slaves to their pension and health care obligations. If intentional, it s a sly, searing indictment of the death dance between manufacturer and employee. Slavery enslaves both the slave and the master. That kind of thing.

If unintentional, Howes defense becomes a passive
having their cake and starving too statement: admitting Detroit s mistakes while painting its blundering protagonists as honorable victims. By adding the phrase and getting them to the legacy cost issue, Howes seems to be saying Sure they screwed-up, but at least these goombas are honoring their obligations. And then a threat.

I doubt you or any of your successors would want the alternative. That's why the drama playing out here right now — the restructuring of General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., the bankruptcy of Delphi Corp., the embrace of alternative engine and fuel technology — is so important to the industrial health of this country, even if the coastal elites you're so fond of are utterly indifferent to much of anything here in flyover country.
There s no ambiguity here. Howes is clearly stating that the political fallout from a GM bankruptcy — or worse — would spell big trouble for George W, his political colleagues and America as a whole. Which is fair enough. But the writer s crack about the Texas-raised President s alleged fondness for geographically insensitive coastal elites is Bush-bashing, pure and simple.

Strategically, it s a big mistake. At a key stroke, Howes has alienated readers considering his remarks from the right hand side of the political spectrum, where, lest we forget, the power currently resides. The flyover country comment is another misstep, indicating the presence of a large chip on the writer s shoulder. Luckily, Howes quickly and completely regains his rhetorical balance, emphasizing Detroit s contention that they aren t seeking a bailout.

What they want is an advocate whose sweeping concept of national security in a globalized world doesn't end with the Pentagon, the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security. It includes manufacturing, the indigenous auto industry and new fuel technology because a robust and independent industry can still be a bulwark even in the allegedly post-industrial 21st century.
Well, you can t argue with that. It s a damn fine point that needs making. So much so it s no big deal when Howes makes it again.
Let me be clear: The smart heads in this town, at least the ones who don't live in the past or go to work each day at the UAW's Solidarity House headquarters, don't want a bailout from Washington because they know they won't get one. They also know too many people think they don't deserve one.
OK; we re good to go. But where? Under the heading Level the Playing Field, Howes tells us what Detroit s movers and shakers don t want: national health care and trade barriers. Howes fails to step up and declare his wish list. Instead, he claims that the Bush administration's reluctance to sweat the Japanese, Chinese or the South Koreans over our access to their markets or their intervention in the currency markets doesn't help our competitive equation.

Again, it s a fair cop — even if Howes previous statement that GM makes more money in China than anywhere else in the world takes the sting out of the tale. As always, the devil s in the details. Which Howes fails to provide. All we get is this:

But when no less than the consul general of Japan admits in Friday's editions of The Detroit News that "Japan did intervene in foreign currency markets in the past for the sake of predictability" — well, that tells you everything you need to know.
Not me. I d like to know when Japan intervened in the currency markets, the extent of that intervention, who did it, why, how, its impact on the American automotive market, its legality under international law and the US government s awareness and reaction. I also wonder if they re doing still at it now, and, if not, what are the chances of it happening again?

Good luck explaining all that in a few graphs. Even so, it would behoove Mr. Howes to provide a more detailed analysis of this tilted playing field, and give us guidance how it might be leveled by the President, should he have the legal power to do so. Otherwise, the average reader will simply return to the Prez common sense connection between crap cars and failing automakers.

Clearly, that kind of thinking sticks in Howes craw. So much so the writer takes off on a major league digression, switching from offense to defense.

There are some fundamental truths about the Detroit-based industry you should be reminded of, too, even if you don't see them in the clips culled from the coastal papers, which generally have already declared Detroit dead and only Detroit doesn't know it.

First, Detroit does build "relevant" product, such as the white Ford F-250 you drive down in Crawford. Despite all the ballyhoo about Nissan's new Titan pickup, the Mississippi-made behemoth you touted on a visit down there continues to miss sales targets — so much so that Nissan cut production while Ford's F-Series trucks continue to sell near record levels.

Sounds like relevant product to me.

Mr. Howes is being disingenuous. First, no newspaper on either coast has declared Detroit dead. Bankruptcy-bound, sure. (My hand s up on that one.) But I ve never read a report claiming that GM, Ford, DCX and their camp followers are about to fall into a black hole and disappear. And that out of touch Bush-bashing stuff is just as untrue and unhelpful here as it was at the beginning of the article.

Second, one suspects that Mr. Howes realizes that Mr. Bush is smart enough to know the difference between a company that makes a relevant product and enough relevant products to stay in business.

As he heads for home, Howes asks Congress (not the President) to go easy on pension reform (to avoid depleting Detroit s cash hordes ), defends Detroit s gas-guzzlers with misleading moral relativism (CAF to CAF if you please), praises Motown for bothering to play hybrid catch-up and ethanol bingo, and claims Detroit was way ahead of the Prez end to oil addiction shtick. It reads pretty much like it sounds: an unconvincing, fragmented apologia.

Howes final plea to the President is both vague and uninspiring. Bush should be more willing to lend more moral support and a few well-considered helping hands. Maybe so. But by the same token, Howes should be more willing to lend us his encyclopedic knowledge, unimpeachable integrity and well-honed writing skills; to help us understand the need for federal assistance to the domestic automobile industry.

Help Us Mr. President [The Detroit News]

[Jalopnik s Between the Lines column parses the rhetoric of the automotive industry, and the media that covers it, from the point of view of that kid at the back of the class with ADD, a genius IQ and a thirst for mayhem.]

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