Campaign advisers to Ronald Reagan reportedly are working to blur his extremist right-wing image. The presidential candidate is not helping that much, judging by his recent widely publicized comments urging the revocation of life-saving auto-safety standards. Soon, they may be grappling with the image of Reagan’s brutishness.
A few days before the Michigan primary, which he was supposed to win, Reagan spoke before the business establishment at the Detroit Economic Club. There, before an audience of 1,200 executives—many from the Big Three auto companies—Reagan engaged his basic callousness with that of the auto industry. Up to now, even the most scapegoating Motown executives, like Lee Iacocca, have been unwilling to reveal what they got Ronald to say.
At the Economic Club and around Michigan in the following days, Reagan blamed the industry’s slump on Washington, called for a repeal of lifesaving safety standards and suspension of fuel-efficiency rules until 1985. When asked which regulations he would revoke, Reagan with typical wild inaccuracy said, “Well, there are tens and tens of thousands of unnecessary regulations” and a task force is needed to winnow out the non-cost-effective ones.
Actually, there are less than 50 federal safety and fuel-efficiency standards applicable to the auto industry. Most of the safety standards were issued more than a decade ago and most of them just ratified existing industry capability.
Reagan called for a moratorium on further safety regulations—a move which would condemn tens of thousands of Americans to death and injury each year. He particularly focused on passive seat belts and air bags which he said discriminate against American automakers because the law applies first to big cars in 1982 and to middle-and small-size cars in 1983 and 1984 model years, respectively.
But it was General Motors and Ford which demanded in 1977 that the Department of Transportation start with large cars. Now, with Reagan as their mouthpiece, they want to excoriate the government for what they demanded in the first place.
But Reagan reserved his greatest absurdity for the Carter Administration, which he accused of “conducting a concerted campaign to cripple the American automobile industry” that was “virtually being regulated to death.”
Once again, Reagan, the facts intrude. Not a single major safety standard has taken effect in the last 10 years. Besides the de facto Nixon-Ford moratorium on auto-safety advances, no significant safety standard has been implemented in three and a half years under Carter.
Moreover, Carter gave the auto companies four to six years to adopt the modest, 30-mph impact protection through passive restraints such as the highway-proven air bags or passive belts.
Carter has pushed, ever so modestly, the domestic auto companies to make their cars more fuel-efficient. To the extent this has occurred, Washington helped save the domestic companies from ever-greater losses to imported cars and the country from even greater oil imports. Instead of appreciating this uplift, the auto companies, incredibly enough, are roasting the government for nudging them a little way toward economic competition.
Reagan went so far as to say that it was Detroit, not consumer groups or government, that initiated car-safety innovations. Yet it was Henry Ford II and other auto executives who have admitted, in rare moments of graciousness, that cars are safer, more fuel-efficient and less polluting because of federal regulations. Indeed it was not so long ago that auto companies were opposing seat belts as unnecessary and ineffective.
There is more to the Reagan rage than a man willing to trade American lives on the highway for campaign contributions from the boardroom. (It was no coincidence that a $1,000-a-plate corporate fund-raising dinner in Detroit coincided with his remarks.) Behind that easy smile and that “aw shucks” demeanor, there is a mean and ignorant character with an authoritarian inclination. Presidential power will bring out these Reagan traits far more than gubernatorial power ever did.
What is most remarkable about his campaign is how little the press challenges his fictional outbursts. Partly because campaigning national politicians only have to assert themselves to get press, and partly because Reagan is perceived as a “known quantity,” the media has let him slide through one day after another except for reporting his own blatant gaffes.
Reagan’s frantic expediency did not slide him through the Michigan Republican primary, however. Although clearly favored, Reagan lost big to George Bush. Maybe the Master of Massage from California will learn that campaigning against health and safety on the road, in the factories and throughout the environment may gain corporate bucks but lose people’s votes.