Strange Bedfellow

Car Talk

The driving issue of American politics is driving.

The urge to explain an entire election in terms of a single lesson or message is usually worth resisting. But in this week’s off-year voting, the chief theme seems too strong and too weird to resist. The new driving force in American politics is driving.

The two biggest races were the gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia, and both were dominated by car talk. In New Jersey, Democratic challenger James McGreevey put a pledge to make driving cheaper at the center of his campaign. Taking a page from his opponent Christine Todd Whitman’s playbook of four years ago, McGreevey promised an across-the-board reduction of 10 percent, not in income taxes but in auto-insurance premiums. In New Jersey, where people spend more time behind the wheel than in any other state and consequently pay the most for auto insurance (though few recognize any connection), this was an offer almost too good to refuse. It very nearly turned a previously popular incumbent out of office in the midst of an economic boom. In exit polls, nine out of 10 voters said the insurance issue was an important factor in their vote.

In a capitalist economic system, you might wonder at the idea of a governor simply ordering a statewide price reduction. But in New Jersey, nearly everyone takes it for granted that you can’t have a free market in anything as important as automobile insurance. Only the Libertarian candidate, Murray Sabrin, favored deregulating the system under which insurers must petition a state board to raise rates and are forbidden to earn profits of more than 6 percent a year. Whitman and McGreevey battled over what kind of additional regulation would most effectively force a reduction in rates. Whitman offered the more sensible proposal, a sort of managed-competition scheme modeled on national legislation sponsored by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Her plan would require insurers to offer as one option a true no-fault policy, which says that you can’t try to recover damages for pain and suffering. She saved her job by claiming that this would mean an even bigger break for motorists–of up to 25 percent.

I n Virginia, it was the Republican who hot-wired the cheaper driving issue and drove it to victory. The state derives much of its revenue from an anachronistic personal-property tax, which has evolved into a tax mainly on automobile ownership. James Gilmore, the Republican candidate, promised to abolish this tax and coasted to victory by a 13-point margin. Gilmore’s Democratic opponent, Don Beyer, might have been expected to capitalize on this issue himself. In addition to being the former lieutenant governor, he is a car dealer in northern Virginia, famous for his mysterious advertising slogan, “Don Beyer Volvo–The Great Experiment on Route 7.” (What does it mean? Click.)

Back during the summer, according to news reports, Beyer’s political consultants recommended that he call for the abolition of the car tax before Gilmore did. Unfortunately for Beyer, a bad case of liberal compunction set in. He said that dropping the tax would bankrupt the state and harm education. After Gilmore started hammering him with the issue, Beyer countered with a complicated proposal of his own that would have given a tax rebate to lower-income drivers only. While slightly more realistic, this lacked the simplistic appeal of abolition.

In the only congressional race of this election, the contest for Susan Molinari’s seat on Staten Island was fought in part over the cost of driving across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which connects Staten Island to Brooklyn and thence to the rest of the world. Democrat Eric Vitaliano, who has been a state-assembly member for many years, took credit for reducing the cost for Staten Island residents, who get discounts of up to 70 percent on the $7 round-trip toll (and who can ride to Manhattan at no charge on the Staten Island Ferry). This was good, but it wasn’t good enough. Vitaliano lost to a Republican City Council member, Vito Fossella, who said that he would work to eliminate the toll on the bridge completely.

In Denver, voters rejected a $16-billion expansion of the city’s light-rail system. Supporters of the plan argued that better public transportation would reduce traffic and lighten Denver’s notorious “brown cloud.” Opponents objected to a four-tenths-of-1-cent increase in the sales tax to pay for the system, and argued that public transportation is a violation of nature in the West, where people like to drive.

In Seattle, the danger of getting caught in bridge traffic at rush hour is a citywide obsession (and a subject with which Slate’s headquarters team frequently bores those of us in the provinces). The mayor’s race this year was fought in part over alternative approaches to preventing further development and congestion. Even in New York City, a place where sane people do not drive, incumbent Mayor Rudy Giuliani scored some points by taking on every country in the world over the issue of diplomats who double-park near the United Nations.

I t’s easy to disparage auto politics as the parochialism of a post-ideological era. With the Cold War won, the budget balanced, crime in free fall, and the economy booming, politics is so free of important content that elections can hinge on who will be nicer to cars. It is a bit stupid to spend time debating who is more likely to accede to a toll increase–as the candidates did in New Jersey. But some of the driving issues are not trivial. According to one recent federal study, 70 percent of urban freeways are now clogged at rush hour. What makes this more than a problem of traffic engineering is that you can’t reduce congestion without raising issues like air pollution, the greenhouse effect, and the harm that metropolitan sprawl can do to a region’s quality of life.

What is dismal about this politics is that the new pandering about driving is as bad as the old pandering about tax cuts. One difference is that this time around, Democrats are less likely to get played for suckers. In New Jersey and Staten Island, candidates from the two major parties debated the relative merits of alternative free-lunch options. Reducing insurance rates by discouraging frivolous lawsuits is a perfectly sound idea. But so too would it be a good idea to discourage driving through higher tolls, pricier gas, and better public transportation. A program like this would mitigate environmental and congestion problems as well as quality-of-life concerns.

Politically, however, such a platform probably won’t get you very far. The last politician to propose making driving more expensive was Al Gore, who fought to include a small energy tax–which would have included gasoline–in the Clinton administration’s 1993 economic plan. It almost sank the whole deal. Since then, there’s been no mention of tollbooths on the bridge to the 21st century.