Why Democrats would be wise to compromise on CAFE standards 
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As a Democrat, I am happy that polling and political trends point to a good midterm election. I also know that swing voters in suburban and some rural counties will be crucial to strong Democratic gains and the key to keeping several Senate seats.  Nonetheless, many prominent Democrats and their allies continue to ignore the political realities in middle America when they choose on which issues to fight.

One example is the consensus among Democrats – at least those not in tight races – to draw a line in the sand on maintaining Obama administration future automobile fuel efficiency standards (CAFE). With few exceptions, they have poured vitriol on the Trump administration for conducting its own examination of the issue and for threatening to “roll-back” standards they say are vital to fighting global warming.


From a policy perspective, it’s not that simple. The EPA is not talking about reducing current standards as often implied by the term “roll-back.” As for future standards, Democrats can accomplish their larger environmental goals without holding to the Obama administration’s ambitious calendar which has fleet wide CAFE standards reaching 54.5 MPG, up more than 50 percent from the current 2018 goal of 36 MPG.

What is simpler is the politics if Democrats continue to make support of Obama’s 2025 CAFE standard a litmus test for Democratic senators from states Trump won – Democrats will alienate the very swing voters they need the most.

President Obama rightly pointed out that we shouldn’t be divided into “Red States” and “Blue States” and should be the “United States.” Nonetheless, there are regional differences. In red and purple counties and states, the most popular vehicles by far are SUVs and pick-up trucks, especially in outer suburban regions with many swing voters. Increases in fuel economy and low gas prices have made these vehicles very affordable for working families. The assumption is that more fuel economy would make these vehicles even more affordable to operate and so make up for the fact that they are going to cost more. 

But that’s not the way people think and it’s not the way the math works on fuel economy standards. Sure, more efficient engines would be somewhat cheaper to operate but that will not make up for the dramatic jump in price that will occur with these larger vehicles. The National Auto Dealers Association estimates that new vehicles on average will cost $3,000 more but the increase will be much more for larger vehicles. For many, it will not be realistic to afford a new F-150 or Sierra when the time comes, and they will have to give them up or hang on to their old vehicle (defeating the purpose of higher future CAFE standards).

Also, the way CAFE standards are written is not simple – they do not just require a vehicle to hit a certain number, they are fleet standards. Auto companies can comply with them by building many more electric and hybrid models in their fleet and dramatically reducing the supply of new gas-powered SUVs and pick-ups. This is fine for more wealthy people purchasing an electric SUV or pick-up, as long as they live in areas that have charging stations. But most swing voters won’t be able to afford them and, besides, there aren’t many charging stations where they live.

So, Democrats will be portrayed as prioritizing environmental groups over consumer choice – a political loser.  The 30-second ad writes itself.

But it gets much worse. CAFE proponents argue that automakers can meet these standards. They omit that the way automakers will do it is to import many more of the most valuable parts from other countries, in particular China. That’s why the United Auto Workers (UAW) union is one Democratic-ally strongly in favor of renegotiating the standards even while the auto executives remain ambivalent. Its research director, Jennifer Kelly, testified that there isn’t enough time to develop domestic capacity to make the sophisticated parts necessary to meet the Obama 2025 standard and so much more will be imported. That could lead to “mass layoffs of American workers” and so the UAW’s position is to save jobs for their members.  

So now Democrats will be portrayed as prioritizing environmental groups over manufacturing jobs for middle-class Americans. That’s certainly not going to get those voters back who voted Obama in 2008 and then Trump in 2016.

The most tragic thing is Democrats are set to take a political hit when the Obama 2025 CAFE goal, in the current context, may be a mixed bag for the environment. To understand why such ambitious CAFE increases have environmental downsides, you have to look at where the major components for electric cars are manufactured and the necessary minerals are mined. Until we develop more capacity, the parts come largely from China, in which manufacturing is substantially more polluting than U.S. production.

Even more concerning might be the fact that many minerals (like lithium, aluminum and thorium) vital to making vehicles needed to meet the current Obama 2025 standard are mined under the Ocean by China, Russia, Brazil and other foreign countries and many experts are already concerned about environmental damage.  Clearly, we need more research about this unfortunate side-effect of moving too fast to electric cars.

Furthermore, before the Obama CAFE standards became a political litmus test for environmentalists, there was justified skepticism about whether they were the best approach. As Sam Ori of the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute told the Atlantic: “It’s really hard to go to bat for CAFE, … It’s an extremely expensive way to reduce emissions … It doesn’t account for lifetime consumption. You can have one car that’s driven 100,000 miles over its lifetime, and the other driven 200,000, but they’re regulated the same under CAFE.”

I am not saying abandon CAFE. Most news stories have been comparing Obama’s set 2025 levels to freezing standards forever or even repealing current standards and I would be strongly opposed to those alternatives. But there is middle ground. Have standards rise but over enough time to better develop domestic industry both in terms of mining the crucial raw materials and building electric components. Democrats should make these plans a part of our platform and put us on the side of jobs and infrastructure improvements. Those are winning positions going into crucial elections and, as we found out in 2010 and again in 2016, if you do not win the election, it doesn’t matter how good your environmental policies are.

Maffei is professor of practice at GWU Graduate School of Political Management and former member of Congress. He served from 2009-2011 and again from 2013-2015.