Historically those who run America’s automobile companies and those who have retailed their products have always been proud members of the GOP.
Those I know are thoughtful, considerate, take good care of their best employees and conduct their business in the manner most likely to make sure their clients come back and purchase from their stores again. For the most part they are fearless business people, as indeed they have to be: Given the auto industry’s cyclical nature, owning a new car dealership is definitely not for the faint of heart.
I rarely, and I mean rarely, discuss politics with them. (Not to be confused with real world economic issues.) For one thing, I know exactly where each of them stands on the issues, and it hasn’t changed much in the past 40 years. After all, we all know that a truly healthy economy tops most other issues this country. Hence we share the most common and important interest of all: The economic well-being of the largest possible number of Americans. Let’s just say, it’s good for business.
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Another trait we share is our blindness to gender, race or nationality. As I’ve mentioned here before, when I started in the auto industry in Houston in late 1973, many salespeople I worked with refused to wait on the many Iranian students — and other individuals from the Middle East who were in Houston in those days — because of who they were, where they were from.
In the case of the Iranians, the Shah’s regime was paying them small fortunes to attend Houston’s medical schools. The only constant complaint I heard them make was that once they finished their medical training they had no desire whatsoever to return home and practice in Iran. Most wanted to stay here.
The prejudice of the other salespeople melted away once they saw how many cars I was selling those med students.
In 1975 in North Dallas I worked with some salesmen who did the most foolish thing I can think of. During the day many housewives would come into our store and look at cars. Not all, but most of the salesmen would hand them a card, maybe give them a brochure, and suggest they come back with their husbands that night. I treated them as if they were the sole decision maker in the car buying process: If they wanted to drive cars and discuss options and features, then that’s what we did. Now it is true that not once did any of those housewives purchase a new vehicle without bringing their husbands back to our store. But it is equally true that, in those particular new car purchases, the ladies were the sole decision makers.
In all my years of selling cars or running dealerships no one was excluded from buying a new car. But even more important, not once did anyone I know in the car business ask to see a potential customer’s Voter ID to make sure they were selling to the ‘right kind’ of individual.
Come to think of it, when I hired someone into the auto industry, regardless of the position inside the dealership, I never asked to see a Voter ID either. That was and is the joy of the free enterprise system. You hire people, then find out which of three categories they fit into: Competent, Incompetent and Doesn’t Care. In the real economic world, political labels don’t get the job done.
Early this year I was speaking with one of the more respected new car dealers in America. I know he can take some fairly hard-core conservative positions, and that’s fine with me: I still consider him one of the finest individuals I’ve ever known. But what I said to him that day, and with all respect and deference, was, “I believe you have lost control of your political party.”
He thought about that for a second and sighed and said, “I believe you are right.” Later at a large dealer association meeting he stood up and made a similar statement to his automotive brethren.
2-Year Campaign “News”
He’s not the only one concerned about the direction this upcoming election might take us. A number of dealers and general managers have asked me recently how I see the 2016 election outcome and what might happen in the aftermath. To be truthful, I have no idea who will win next year’s election. My only regret is that we’ve allowed our presidential campaigns to expand to two years, making us all miserable for 22 whole months before everyone takes off to the polls to make their final decision.
In the Sixties Barry Goldwater announced for the Presidency in January of 1964, 10 months before the election, and Bobby Kennedy announced on March 16, 1968, only half a year before the national vote. Ah, those were the days.
But, when asked, I still have to point out the obvious, easily verifiable facts to the dealers and GMs with November 2016 on their minds. Looking back on the auto industry’s last 80 years, one will find that new car dealers and auto manufacturers do much better in most years under a Democratic president. Likewise, the most major washouts of dealerships in America have happened during lengthy Republican presidencies. Think 1988 to 1992, right here in North Texas: The number of long-term dealers who were forced to call it a day in that period was jaw-dropping. Likewise, in 2005, not only was Ford nearly bankrupt, and GM and Chrysler sliding rapidly in that direction, but many well regarded local dealers in North Texas were sometimes struggling to turn a decent profit.
Of course, what’s insane about all this is the fact that no Republican president that I know of has done one thing to damage the ability of any new car dealer to ply his or her trade, nor have they instituted policies that were overtly damaging to new car buyers. Conversely, I can’t think of many things Democratic presidents have ever done to encourage car buying or dealer profitability, other than the Cash for Clunkers program during our 18-month Depression in 2009 and 2010, which saved Detroit and many new car dealers across America.
Winner Doesn’t Matter
On the other hand, to stop inflation, Jimmy Carter allowed Paul Volcker to run interest rates up to 21% in 1980. Car sales fell 3 million units that year. But, even as the Fed lowered interest rates and Ronald Reagan came into office, new car sales continued to fall for another two years. Bummer.
As I’ve told my friends, I’ve been around for Democrats and Republicans and known my fair share of political agnostics, even as car sales rose and fell and, twice, collapsed almost completely. And all the hyperbole today, that things have never been worse in America, ignores the Herculean efforts people had to make to survive during the Great Depression or even the Second World War.
Personally, I think those periods were much worse than now for trying to protect your investment in a retail operation.
And so when the dealers and GMs asked me who’d win the next election, I answered, “Who cares? In the end it doesn’t really matter.” The logic is simple. America still has to build and sell cars, both new and used, keep them running and take care of customers. That’s what people do to keep the economy going. We adapt, no matter what.
And that will surely happen, even if Donald Trump gets the nomination — and, in another of his surprising moves, picks Bernie Sanders as his running mate.
© Ed Wallace 2015
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, given by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and is a member of the American Historical Association. He hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, and read all of Ed’s work at www.insideautomotive.com.