Detroit's Lesson in the Ways of Washington

By Warren Brown
Sunday, November 30, 2008

I pity Detroit.

It doesn't get it.

It doesn't understand that Washington takes Hollywood seriously.

It doesn't know that the nation's capital places more stock in symbolism -- the grand gesture -- than it does in relevant discussions of policy.

It is an ignorance for which the leaders of Detroit's automobile industry paid dearly during their sojourn to Capitol Hill earlier this month. The poor, naive darlings -- they came with so many misconceptions, chief among them the belief that America's politicians consider Detroit's companies vital to the nation's business.

The Detroit executives could not have been more wrong. Before coming here, they should have had someone scout out Capitol Hill -- its side streets, garages and parking lots. They would have found that America's politicians and their staffers, and that most motorists in America's capital city buy very little of what American car companies make.

The place abounds with Acura, BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo cars. Chevrolet, Ford and Chrysler models constitute a distinct minority. Real numbers support that empirical observation. An astounding 76.9 percent of new car registrations in the Washington Metropolitan Area are foreign makes, according to the latest retail figures compiled by the Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association and R. L. Polk & Co., a marketing research firm.

Here's the kicker: Washington is fond of accusing Detroit of being truck-crazy. Detroit, in fact, dominates the truck market. But that dominance means relatively little in Washington, where import/foreign brands account for 53 percent of the sales of new light trucks -- vans, minivans, sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks.

Is it any wonder that politicians and so many media pundits in Washington hold fast to the fiction that Detroit makes nothing people want to buy?

Truth is, as reported in this space several times, GM, Ford and Chrysler still hold an estimated 48.1 percent of the U.S. market for new vehicles. That's respectable, considering the United States is the world's most wide-open market for sales of import cars and trucks.

It's not so much that American car companies make nothing people want to buy. Their vehicles sell quite well in the Midwest, Deep South, Southwest and Northwest. But the problem is that for many people -- folks in Southern California and the District of Columbia are good examples -- American cars lack a certain cache. It is a feeling that stems from what I call the Middle America Rejection Syndrome (MARS).

It works like this:

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