Ray LaHood: Unsafe at Any Speed

The Scrapbook invites you on a trip down memory lane​—​a slightly harrowing place, about a year ago, but well worth the journey for a little lesson in the way things work. Remember the Toyota Crisis of 2010? It was (statistically speaking) one of the principal stories of the year, commanding network news time and dominating the front pages of America’s newspapers. And the news was frightening: Electronic devices used in Toyota gas pedals were accelerating “spontaneously,” prompting cars to lurch forward at uncontrollable speeds, causing untold hazards to millions of Americans who, in their innocence, own and drive Toyotas.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that “Toyotas are unsafe,” and the Democratic Congress swung into action. Multiple hearings were held in which Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) not only featured anecdotes of lethal acceleration, but accused Toyota executives of lying about the problem and deliberately concealing what they knew. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) referred to Toyotas as “killing machines.” The nation’s leading newspapers, news magazines, and television networks ran numerous stories on the killing-machine theme; ABC’s Brian Ross concocted footage for the purpose. Toyota was fined a record $48.8 million for what the Obama administration considered its inadequate response to the crisis​—​three recalls totaling some 12 million vehicles​—​and Toyota’s stock price and market share declined.

Well, as Emily Litella used to say on Saturday Night Live, “Nevermind.” After an exhaustive ten-month investigation by Ray LaHood’s Transportation Department, assisted by NASA engineers, the United States government has officially concluded that there is no evidence​—​no evidence whatsoever​—​of any mechanical or electronic defect in Toyotas that would cause sudden, unintentional acceleration. No killing machines, no Watergate-style corporate cover-up​—​and no comment, of course, from Henry Waxman or Bobby Rush. Secretary LaHood did insist, for the record, that his department’s findings never suggested the possibility of “human error” in generating this manufactured crisis​—​he prefers the delightful technical term “pedal misapplication”​—​but he did acknowledge that “Toyota vehicles are safe to drive.”

Which must be cold comfort for Toyota, the Japanese-based manufacturer of safe, efficient, high-quality, popular automobiles for the American market for several decades. Nevertheless, The Scrapbook has conducted its own exhaustive investigation​—​with no help from NASA!​—​and reached a few conclusions about this extraordinary episode.

First, it seems clear that the Obama administration’s decision to go after Toyota​—​that is, to throw the full weight of the federal government into the cause of injuring a successful, law-abiding, and profitable business enterprise​—​was taken in tandem with the government’s financial takeover of General Motors. There’s a Chicago-style logic at play here: The recovery of a bankrupt GM was never guaranteed, but the destruction of a principal competitor couldn’t hurt.

Second, given the tone and tenor of the congressional hearings, this was clearly Democratic special-interest politics at work. Among Toyota’s harshest critics on Capitol Hill were former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head Joan Claybrook and Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety, whose mission was not only to saddle the manufacturer with additional burdensome regulations but to set the stage for years of litigation against Toyota. The tort bar was actively soliciting clients, and Toyota was looking at an endless supply of acceleration “victims,” class-action settlements, and John Edwards-style litigators.

Which demonstrates, in The Scrapbook’s estimation, two inconvenient truths about life in today’s America. One is that, politically speaking, if a certain administration decides it doesn’t like you, it can call upon the full resources of the federal government to make your life, at the least, deeply unpleasant. And second, automotively speaking, when a disproportionate number of “unintended acceleration” complainants turn out to be senior citizens, it is possible​—​just possible​—​that the cause is something other than a faulty electronic system.

UPDATE: Olivia Alair, press secretary at the Department of Transportation, writes in to say:

In fact, there are two mechanical defects which can cause these kinds of incidents.

Our press release announcing the findings of the NHTSA-NASA study of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles clearly stated that they found no ELECTRONIC cause for the dangerous, high-speed unintended acceleration incidents reported to NHTSA by consumers. This study was specifically directed at the electronics in Toyota vehicles, but as our press release also made clear, there are two, very real mechanical defects in Toyotas that can cause these types of dangerous incidents: sticking gas pedals and a design flaw that can enable gas pedals to become entrapped by floor mats. NHTSA identified those two defects more than a year ago, and Toyota has recalled nearly 8 million vehicles for the two defects.

Your article needs to be corrected to say that NHTSA and NASA found no evidence of an electronic defect that could cause dangerous unintended acceleration incidents in Toyotas, beyond the two already identified mechanical defects.

The Vanishing Conservative Dems

The Scrapbook has a fondness for perennial news stories​—​the growing gap between rich and poor, how the Internet is changing politics, the increasing diversity of the suburbs​—​but the granddaddy of them all is the troubling disappearance of liberal Republicans.

It takes different forms, but is always the same old plot. The Washington Post will find a retired businessman in Ohio who cast his first ballot for Wendell Willkie but now is horrified by the right-wing extremism of George H.W. Bush or John McCain. The New York Times will run a friendly profile of the two moderate Republican senators from Maine, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who represent the dying breed of moderate Republican senators from the Northeast. And so on, and on.

The Scrapbook is happy to concede that the Republican party, like the country generally, has moved rightward in recent decades; and that fewer candidates would today identify themselves as “liberal Republicans”​—​whatever that may mean​—​than in, say, 1966. Still, The Scrapbook can’t help but observe that, as the GOP has shifted to the right, the Democratic party has lurched decisively to the left, leaving what used to be called “conservative Democrats”​—​Reagan Democrats, Cold War liberals, Blue Dog Democrats, whatever​—​as an endangered species within their party. The difference, of course, is that while the press tends to obsess on the thinning ranks of liberal Republicans, it is unaccountably silent about the demise of conservative Democrats.

We were reminded of this last week when the Democratic Leadership Council announced that it was closing shop. At a moment when Nancy -Pelosi is the undisputed leader of congressional Democrats, the Obama White House is a wholly owned subsidiary of organized labor, and MoveOn.org and Daily Kos are the intellectual engines of the Democratic party, it is fair to say that the species of moderate Democrat is not only endangered but moving swiftly toward extinction. The last Cold War liberal, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, has announced his -retirement, as has Rep. Jane Harman of California, whose support for the war on terror, under Speaker Pelosi, cost her the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee. Of the 53 Blue Dog Democrats in the House, 21 were defeated for reelection in November, and the 6 Blue Dogs who retired were succeeded by Republicans.

You wouldn’t know it from the abuse it endured from within its own party’s ranks, but the Democratic Leadership Council was hardly a conservative organization. Formed in 1985 after the Mondale debacle, it sought to inject a measure of fiscal responsibility into Democratic dogma and put some distance between the party and the protectionist AFL-CIO. After the defeat of Michael Dukakis in 1988, it earned the active support of senators such as Charles Robb of Virginia and Sam Nunn of Georgia, as well as governors such as Bill Clinton of Arkansas. And it may well be said that Clinton’s most enduring achievements as president​—​welfare reform, NAFTA, deregulation, budget surpluses​—​were largely in accordance with DLC doctrine.

But that was then. Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama turned their backs on the policies that had elected Bill Clinton to two terms in the White House, and Howard Dean, as presidential candidate and Democratic National Committee chairman, was a relentless public antagonist of the Democratic Leadership Council. Its influence is long gone, and its demise was overdue.

Admittedly, The Scrapbook doesn’t lose sleep over the wayward path of the Democratic party. But if we have to read yet another story about an anguished Republican voter in Oregon who can’t abide the Tea Party, it would be nice to read an accompanying profile of a lonely pro-life Democrat in Pennsylvania who supports the war on terror and is distressed by “stimulus” spending.

Correction of the Year (so far)

"An article on Jan. 16 about drilling for oil off the coast of Angola erroneously reported a story about cows falling from planes, as an example of risks in any engineering endeavor. No cows, smuggled or otherwise, ever fell from a plane into a Japanese fishing rig. The story is an urban legend, and versions of it have been reported in Scotland, Germany, Russia and other locations” (New York Times, February 6, 2011).

Great Moments in Acknowledgments

"For well over twenty years, one of the greatest pleasures during campaign season has been the companionship of journalist-author Joe Klein; we have broken bread from one end of the country to the other, and on several occasions have gathered a gaggle of colleagues for lengthy lunches and dinners. Beyond that, Joe is a good friend and a one-man generator of ideas .  .  . ” (from Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan, by Jeff Greenfield (Putnam). ♦

Sentences We Didn’t Finish

"The Republican Party tries to claim the Reagan mantle but has moved so far to the right that it now inhabits its own parallel universe. On the planet that today’s GOP leaders call home, Reagan would qualify as one of those big-government, tax-and-spend liberals who .  .  .  ” (Eugene Robinson, Washington Post, February 8, 2011).

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