Published May 26, 2011
While we're basking in the short spring between presidential elections--sort of--it's time to acknowledge the debt owed by electric cars, not to today's crop of bureaucrats, but to the bête noire of progressives everywhere, President George W. Bush.
Some critics think the electric-car subsidies in place today belong to the current White House, but those line items actually are the product of Bush's second term, and they're the root of the real electric cars you can see, buy, drive and recharge today.
Before Obama raised CAFE requirements, Bush did it. And if you're looking for the stroke of the pen that created the burgeoning world of EVs around us, that stroke came from Bush's pen.
Of course, any big entitlement program has many fathers and mothers. In electric cars, the parents are everyone from the engineers who worked on the Chevy Volt's battery pack to the team that hashed out the Leaf's charging system.
Drilling deeper into the past, before the most recent oil shock, takes us to 2007's Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Presidents traditionally get credit for the actions taken below their pay grade, but in Bush's case, there's every reason to attach him to the bill beyond his signature, and to modern electric cars, reasons beyond drowning out the tired "Halliburton big-oil buddy" chant. After all, President Bill Clinton outmaneuvered the GOP on balanced budgets, and put his name to welfare reform--and rightly gets the win for signing his name to history.
Bush gets credit for the energy bill, which was the cumulative work of both parties but landed on his desk in direct response to his State of the Union address in 2007, where he called for incentives to drive down gas consumption by 2017 within ten years. He explicitly linked gas mileage and electric cars with national security--something the EV makers themselves should be doing almost as often as they promise to green up the planet.
Electric cars are real cars
With an investment of $7.5 billion, Bush and Congress underwrote $25 billion in loans that's translated directly into the Leaf, the Volt, Ford's electric Focus, the Think City, and Tesla and Fisker's leap from paper to plant. Now, almost five years later, we have mass-market electric cars. It's anathema for some progressives to give Bush credit for anything--just as it's anathema for more strident conservatives to see any good coming from any social engineering. They didn't like his prescription-drug coverage, either.
It's worth pointing out those electric-car incentives are distinct from the GM and Chrysler bailout loans, which upended the usual bankruptcy process in the hopes of stabilizing the industry as a whole--a move still as divisive today as it was in 2008.
President Obama has his own vision. He's angling to make CAFE a potent enforcer of electric-car mandates: Obama wants a million electric cars to hit the roads by 2015, is mandating federal agencies buy them, and is urging the EPA to keep tightening the CAFE fleet average. Electric cars may be the only way to meet a stringent new 60-mpg bogey, if the President gets his way.
Obama's also trying to turn the federal electric-car $7500 tax credit advocated in the 2007 bill into at-dealer rebates. It's a step that has to happen for the Volt and Leaf to get mainstream consideration, and it's entirely indebted to the Bush bill.
Whose side are you on?
Agnostic of party affiliation, the electric-car mandates were and are political inventions for the right reasons. They reinforce a constitutional obligation with legislation, not without a little bit of cheerleading.
We wouldn't at this place in automotive history without President Bush. To see that or admit it, you have to part a dense thicket of hater propaganda. The politically misguided, morally ambiguous invasion of Iraq is no reason to see electric cars for the win they could be, and to give credit where credit is due.
Bush is still a convenient "stupid" joke for lazy critics who don't like his accent or his big, simple, long-term ideals. The war legacy isn't a comfortable one but like his advocacy of subsidized HIV treatment for Africa--a humane mission before it was overwhelmingly confirmed as smart science--it has undoubtedly changed a miserable situation to something less miserable. Bush was right on Afghanistan, too, which led Obama to Bin Laden.
Now he's being proven right on electric cars, and I wonder if he'll ever get his due.