The myth of Carl Levin

Apr 3, 2002 at 12:00 am

The conventional wisdom, shared across the spectrum, goes something like this: Carl Levin is one of the last great liberals in the U.S. Senate. He is personally far more progressive than Michigan voters. Nevertheless, they keep electing him.

That’s because, we are told, he is a beloved, rumpled old icon who they somehow feel is one of them. But we’d better not push him, liberals are warned. He’s doing everything he can. If we force him out there, the hordes may swoop down, scare the voters and replace him with some horrid right-wing Republican.

We’ve heard that, in slightly more subtle form, from Democratic power brokers for two decades. Well, it’s time to expose the myth. There was a key vote on the environment last month, and Levin was on the wrong side. He voted with Strom Thurmond and Trent Lott, not Teddy Kennedy and Hillary Clinton.

What I am talking about is, of course, the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards. Levin and, let us note, Debbie Stabenow, helped remove from the energy bill a provision to increase these standards.

“It hurts me to say so, but when it comes to protecting the environment from autos’ heavy toll, there is no difference between Michigan’s Republicans and Democrats,” said Lana Pollack, president of the Michigan Environmental Council. Levin’s vote was a blow to cleaner and greener vehicles, a blow to the environment, and, in the long run, hurts Detroit.

But, hey; it’s what the intellectually bankrupt Big Three want now. It is necessary to be realistic. Self-preservation will always come first with politicians. Levin well remembers 1984, when he was almost defeated by a recycled astronaut, and was only saved when it surfaced that his rival had given testimonials for a Japanese car.

That was, however, a long time ago. Carl Levin is so secure and has so much money this year the Republicans couldn’t find anyone to run except “Rocky” Raczkowski, a 33-year-old term-limited state rep from Farmington Hills with no money. There’s no way anything the senator does can hurt him this year, provided it involves consenting adults. And yet Levin, with complete irresponsibility toward the environment, assumed the position required by the automakers.

Ironically, they’ll pay for it in the long run, even if he won’t. There’s a reason people bought Japanese cars in the ’70s and ’80s: They were better. But that — and the oil crises of ’73 and ’79 — were also the best things to happen to our auto industry in a long time. They forced Detroit to get better, in spite of itself. Congress, rightly worried about dependence on foreign oil, created the CAFE standards, which required industry to make vehicles steadily more fuel-efficient.

Naturally, we started cheating as soon as we complacently could. The Arabs soon started selling us oil again, and the politicians, thanks in part to the pressure of corporate lobbyists, started granting “delays” in required efficiency targets.

For a long time, nobody paid much attention. Now, however, the threat is very evident. We are engaged in a risky war on the fringes of the oil-producing world, and Israel is locked in what may be its most dangerous struggle. Yassir Arafat has been humiliated, and presumably is hot for revenge against his enemies.

And we, both as America and Israel’s patron, aren’t too popular in much of the Muslim world these days. Only fools would rule out the possibility of another oil embargo, which would mean that more than half our supply would vanish.

Meanwhile, the Japanese seem, unlike us, to be able to see past the next quarter’s sales figures. Already, they are making popular hybrid fuel-electric cars. They aren’t fighting CAFE rules. Once again, when the crisis comes, they’ll be ready.

And we won’t, thanks in part to Carl Levin. Now, to be sure, in many ways, he is a very good senator. Now chair of the Armed Services Committee, he has an uncommon sanity about weapons systems. He is highly intelligent and enormously hard-working.

But he long ago went “completely beltway,” as Pollack, herself a good Democrat, observed. Like many of his generation, on many issues, Levin’s mind is closed — at least to what those far from Washington may think. “I still agree with him on very many things. But he’s not open to general discussion on any subject,” she noted sadly.

Ironically, she herself came close to having a vote on such things. Then a state senator, Pollack almost won the Democratic nomination for a U.S. Senate seat back in 1994. But she was narrowly defeated by a now-forgotten, shopworn congressman.

Pollack went on to revitalize the Michigan Environmental Council. Last week, she wrote letters deftly puncturing all the tired old arguments as to why more fuel-efficient cars would hurt business, cost jobs, etc.

Six months or so ago, I was talking to Al Fishman of Peace Action. He was wishing that somebody would run against Carl Levin in the Democratic primary. Not to divide Democrats, but to raise exactly such issues.

And I can’t think of anyone better than Lana Pollack to do just that. Intellectually formidable, an excellent debater, she’d still almost certainly lose the primary. Yet we all might win. She
isn’t likely to run. But I wish she would, if only to get us thinking before we either blow ourselves up or drown in our own poisons.

So at least think about it, Lana. Once upon a time, the word “Democrat” meant something more than “not quite as bad as a Republican.” It could again.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]