By David Hill - 04/27/05 12:00 AM EDT
Whenever I am handicapping the future prospects of a rising political figure, risk-taking behavior is a major consideration. Candidates who exhibit an unwillingness to take even calculated political risks aren’t likely to amount to much. But candidates who seem unafraid to roll the dice occasionally are headed for success.
Last week, Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael L. Williams confirmed that he’s a risk taker with a future. He wrote a guest editorial for a conservative website (texasinsider.org) suggesting that hybrid vehicles — such as Toyota’s Prius or Honda’s Insight — should become the cars of choice for conservatives. For a Texas oil-patch regulator to take such a stance is surprising, as if you’d heard that Arianna Huffington is pitching Hummers.
Now there have been other conservatives making suggestions like this. Salon reported that a troika of Reagan-era intelligence and defense officials — James Woolsey, Robert C. “Bud” McFarlane and Frank Gaffney — has asked President Bush to make funding available for hybrid-technology research. Their pitch was that America’s overreliance on oil from terror-laden Middle East countries is a threat to our national security.
But Williams’s pitch went further than Bin Laden bashing. He said that hybrids are better for the environment and even made special note of discussing the importance of his topic on Earth Day. Does that break a few stereotypes of Texas Republicans? You bet it does. But by choosing to be a Republican in a state where most of his fellow African-Americans are Democrats, Michael Williams is obviously ready to challenge stereotypes.
The political sense of Williams’s action may elude some political observers. Research released last month by CNW Marketing Research revealed that most hybrid-car buyers are Democrats. The auto researchers found that 62 percent of Honda Insight owners are Democrats while only 11 percent are Republicans. Similarly, 35 percent of Toyota Prius hybrids are bought by Democrats, compared with just 22 percent that are purchased by Republicans. So is Williams courting the wrong voters?
Not really. Read Williams’s op-ed piece more closely and it makes perfect political sense. This Texas Republican is appealing to his conservative base by promising that “convenience” won’t need to be sacrificed with today’s hybrid cars. And he promises that hybrid vehicles will help the Dallas-Fort Worth region achieve federal clean-air standards “in a less burdensome manner.”
More Republicans nationally should make note of Williams’s message. The most recent Associated Press-AOL poll, conducted April 18-20 by Ipsos-Public Affairs, found that 55 percent of American adults say that higher energy prices are affecting them “a lot.” A narrow 51 percent majority of the AP poll respondents expect gasoline prices to cause “financial hardship” for themselves and their families over the next six months.
A 58 percent majority of Gallup poll respondents interviewed in early April said that recent gas-price hikes have caused financial hardships for their families. And 57 percent said they are seriously considering getting a more fuel-efficient vehicle the next time they head for the new-car dealership.
Those polls show that Williams is more in touch with middle Americans than either Republicans who ignore the fuel issue or Democrats who would abandon free markets to strong-arm Americans into fuel-efficient vehicles. Williams understands that Americans love the notion that they can have it all: fuel economy, clean air and comfortable, high-tech transportation.
Lexus is just now introducing the first of its hybrid vehicles, and they will be placed at the highest end of their respective product lines, with higher prices and snazzier amenities than comparable gas-only models. The Lexus website says you can appreciate its new hybrid SUV for its technology or its luxury.
Michael Williams of Texas and Lexus of Tokyo have covered all the angles. Both will be rewarded for their risks.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.