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Originally published Sunday, April 8, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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The car the right wing can't kill

To many, a plug-in hybrid car resembles progress, writes Froma Harrop. But to "conservatives" wanting government-bailed-out Detroit to go down in flames, especially if the United Auto Workers union goes with it, this is the car that has to die.

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Imagine that. Former Republican President George H.W. Bush recently bought his son Neil a Chevrolet Volt as a birthday present. This is the car that all right-thinking right-wingers demand we hate. In their political prism, the Volt has everything going against it: It's beloved by environmentalists for getting 61 miles to the gallon. It's assembled by unionized workers at General Motors' Detroit-Hamtramck plant. It enjoys government subsidies intended to encourage the production of fuel-efficient cars (started actually by H.W.'s oldest son, former President George W. Bush).

To many, this resembles progress. But to "conservatives" wanting government-bailed-out Detroit to go down in flames, especially if the United Auto Workers union goes with it, this plug-in hybrid is the car that has to die.

Lo and behold, U.S. car sales were hot last month, with General Motors selling more than 100,000 vehicles that get at least 30 miles to a gallon. And sales of its Chevy Volt more than doubled from the month before.

The irony is that GM has temporarily stopped production of the Volt following earlier weak sales. And here's why the Volt wasn't flying out of the lots: The right-wing media had launched an outrageous smear campaign against it. As former GM executive Bob Lutz sarcastically put it, the Volt had become "the poster child for President Obama's socialist meddling in the free automotive market."

Lutz responded with special anger to a recent Bill O'Reilly Fox News show in which the host condemned the Volt as "an unmitigated disaster." Joshing over the disappointing Volt sales, O'Reilly's guest Lou Dobbs said, "It doesn't work." Also, "It catches fire."

None of this happens to be true. The European-market Volt worked well enough to be named the European Car of the Year. The "catching fire" claim is pure fiction, Lutz said, based on battery tests "under extremely destructive experimental conditions." Two of the three batteries involved weren't even in a car. No Volt has ever caught fire in an accident on a public road, he added, while between 2003 and 2007, some 278,000 gasoline-powered cars did.

Sadly, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has lowered himself by catering to feverish right-wing fantasies. He softened the rhetoric a bit by advancing the myth that an already weak General Motors and Chrysler could have survived in bankruptcy reorganization without government help. Most economists deemed that scenario impossible at a time of economic meltdown, when nearly all lending had stopped. And who would buy a car from a bankrupt company not backed by the government?

Judging from past writings on energy policy, Romney probably subscribes to a Bush-like belief that government has a role in helping Americans reduce their oil consumption. But he did join the anti-Volt pile-on this week. Using past tense he commented, "I'm not sure America was ready for the Chevy Volt." Then he wished it well.

What weird brand of politics revels at the prospect of plowing under a U.S. product so innovative that the Chinese are demanding its engineering secrets? It's a politics that ignores the huge subsidies that other governments, including China's, are pouring into energy technology. It's a politics that seems to blindly hate organized labor — even after the autoworkers had accepted enormous cuts in their numbers and compensation to keep the car companies afloat. It's a politics that went goofy over Chrysler's Super Bowl ad in which Clint Eastwood announced, "It's halftime in America." Without evidence, some heard a thinly veiled call for a second Obama administration.

Exactly whose side are these people on? If these self-styled patriots want to keep waving the flag, fine. But it should be a white flag, not the American one.

Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is fharrop@projo.com

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