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The South Versus the Union, Redux

What Really Killed the Auto Bailout

by DAVID MACARAY

Until Governor Blagojevich, Bernard Madoff, and Israel-Palestine more or less blew the story off the front page, there were some interesting postmortems being conducted on how and why the rescue plan of the Big Three automakers was torpedoed by the U.S. Congress. 

While the enterprise has officially been relegated to “old news,” C-SPAN’s coverage of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearings on the bailout reminded me of an apocryphal story, which, in turn, helped bring the whole, sorry spectacle into focus.  

According to the story, there was a European king centuries ago who regularly toured the towns and villages of his kingdom.  In honor of these visits it was customary for the town to ring its church bell upon his arrival.  During one such tour, the King and his party approached the outskirts of a town and were surprised that the church bell wasn’t rung.  They continued toward the center of town until they reached town square itself, and, still, no bell.

The King summoned the mayor.  “Why wasn’t the church bell rung in my honor?” he demanded.  “Your Majesty,” the mayor answered, “there are three reasons we didn’t ring the church bell.  First, our church has no bell; second . . .”  The King stopped him.  “Having heard your first reason, I have no desire to hear the other two.”

This bell story came to mind as the Republican senators—many of them Southerners (including the influential Bob Corker of Tennessee, and the committee’s ranking member, Richard Shelby of Alabama)—attempted to explain their reasons for opposing the loan package. 

It occurred to me that Senators Shelby, Corker, et al, could have saved everyone in the room considerable time, energy, and aggravation if they had just been honest and stated their single, non-negotiable objection to the bailout in plain English, rather than pretending they were actually “wrestling” with the issue. 

Had Shelby simply said, “The reason we oppose the bailout is because we want Detroit to fail,” it would have immediately cleared the air (if not the room).  No one—not the exhausted Democrats, the disgraced car executives, or the bewildered UAW rep—would have been required to listen to “other” reasons.  They may not have liked what Shelby said, but at least they would have known from the get-go that their situation was hopeless.

It’s a fact.  Southern Republicans do want to see Detroit fail.  They want to see Detroit fail not only for obvious economic reasons (i.e., to benefit their own rapidly growing auto manufacturing sector), but for the same reason they want to see San Francisco, New York, Hollywood, sushi bars, nipple rings, and hip-hop fail:  because they don’t approve of what those cities and those cultural phenomena represent. 

Detroit is a union town, and Southern Republicans don’t like unions.  They don’t like unions, they don’t like gays, they don’t like environmentalists, they don’t like gun laws, and they don’t like minorities.

Anyone who listened to their sanctimonious, self-congratulatory speeches could tell that the prospect of spending taxpayer money wasn’t what bothered these guys.  Protecting the taxpayer was a ploy, a noble-sounding gimmick.  After all, these are the same politicians who furiously lobby the federal government for defense contracts and agriculture, tobacco and textile subsidies.  

Indeed, the ease with which Republicans awarded the financial institutions nearly one trillion dollars of taxpayer money—practically a blank check—and their well-documented love affair with all things military (no weapons system can, by definition, be too expensive), is proof of how willing they are to spend federal money, provided it’s spent on something they like.. 

No, for Southern Republicans this wasn’t an economic issue.  It was a cultural decision.  And in this regard, Senator Dodd (D-Conn), chairman of the committee, missed a wonderful, cross-cultural opportunity to get these Sons of the Confederacy to change their minds, and to do it on national television. 

Dodd should have asked Shelby and company this question:  If the Big Three go out of business, what’s that going to do to NASCAR?  

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Borneo Bob,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net