GOP rhetoric about Detroit

Everyone expects a certain amount of rhetoric at any national political convention. But it sometimes goes too far and the public ought to be wary. In their zeal to woo blue-collar workers to the GOP, Republicans are pointing to Detroit's high unemployment rate and attempting -- incorrectly -- to paint the Carter administration as the primary source of the automobile industry's problems.

Governor Reagan himself at one point seemed to fall into this trap in describing Detroit as a "focal point" of Carter economic policy failures and referring to "the workers betrayed by this administration." Keynote speaker Guy Vander Jagt also decried the joblessness in Detroit. He said, "We feel the anguish of . . . the unemployed auto worker who has to explain to his little daughter why the long-promised bicycle isn't there, because daddy doesn't have a job any more." The keynoter went on to emphasize that "all of this was deliberately brought about by the Carter administration."

The US auto industry's problems, of course, are largely of their own making. Management was slow to respond to the sudden switch in public demand for small, fuel-efficient cars. Foreign automakers were much quicker to sense the changes brought about by the energy crisis and rising gasoline prices. The Japanese were ready with the kind of cars Americans are now demanding; thus their increasing sales in the US.

US automakers are quick to cite the high costs of meeting federal environmental and gas-mileage regulations. But it must be remembered that foreign car makers are subject to the same restrictions and, by and large, have managed to meet and even exceed the US government's mileage goals.

Nor is it accurate to imply that the government under Mr. Carter ignored the industry's problems. Without the $1.5 billion in federal loan guarantees the White House helped get for Chrysler, that major corporation would have folded and thereby caused even more of Detroit's autoworkers to be laid off. Moreover, the government has recently announced a number of other emergency measures, including stepped-up assistance to cities hurt by auto industry lay-offs, to help the industry through the difficult retooling period that lies ahead.

That the Republicans are anxious to demonstrate their concern for working people is praiseworthy. But when it comes to Detroit and the auto industry, the GOP might do better to follow through on George Bush's pledge to the convention: "Our purpose is not to tear down Jimmy Carter. It is to offer hope and direction to all our countrymen."

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