Driving into the future

Democrats walk tightrope in push for electric vehicles

Electric vehicle charging in Three Rivers, Texas
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Electric vehicle charging in Three Rivers, Texas, on Jan. 6.

High gasoline prices are bolstering Democrats’ calls for increased electric vehicle adoption — but the party will have to contend with accusations of elitism as they make their case.

Electric vehicles can both cut the country’s dependence on foreign oil and help combat climate change.

But they often come with a hefty starting price tag — and Republicans have sought to frame their opponents’ support for clean cars as a boon for the rich. 

“This sort of elitism problem is real because these things are very high priced right now, so Democrats should also be creating some sort of an environment through many different channels to make these much more accessible,” said Democratic strategist Jon Reinish.

Announcing in March that he would invoke the Defense Production Act to bolster the country’s mineral supply chain as part of a plan for reducing gasoline prices, President Biden has touted the consumer benefits of electric vehicles.

“A typical driver will save about $80 a month from not having to pay [for] gas at the pump,” he said at the time. 

But, as Democrats have tried to promote electric vehicle adoption, Republicans have tried to paint them as out of touch. 

After Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in March touted savings on gasoline that can come from driving an electric vehicle, his remarks were seized on by Republicans like Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.). 

“Tell me you’re a liberal elite without telling me you’re a liberal elite,” Cruz tweeted.

“ ‘Just buy an electric car’ is not a solution to Biden’s energy crisis for many Americans,” added Capito. “Comments like this show the stark disparity between the Biden administration and the American people.”

And the criticism has been ongoing. Republicans made similar comments as Democrats tried to push for electric vehicle tax credits in their ill-fated Build Back Better agenda.

“I just don’t understand why in the world we are subsidizing the wealthiest people in America to buy something they consider a trinket,” said Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) during a hearing last year, according to The Detroit News.

Among the general population, policies that promote electric vehicles are popular, but they’re less popular than certain policies in support of other clean energy technologies. 

A Gallup poll published last month found that 61 percent of Americans support tax credits for people who buy electric vehicles while just 38 percent oppose and 59 percent support federal spending to increase the number of electric vehicle chargers. 

But this support is significantly lower than the 89 percent of Americans who support tax credits for people who install clean energy systems such as solar in their homes or the 75 percent who support tax credits for businesses to promote their use of solar, wind and nuclear energy.

Many electric vehicles have a high sticker price. According to Kelley Blue Book, they were selling for about $10,000 more than the average industry price. 

While many EVs are luxury cars like Teslas, and therefore are expected to compete with higher-priced models, even more affordable versions tend to have higher prices than their gas-powered counterparts. For example, Kelley Blue Book notes that the base model of the gas-powered Hyundai Kona is cheaper than its electric version. 

But electric vehicle advocates point to assessments that show savings on fuel and other costs over the course of a car’s lifetime. Consumer Reports found in 2020 that while electric vehicles’ initial price can be from 10 percent to 40 percent more than that of similar vehicles, cost savings over the course of the car’s use can range from $6,000 to $10,000.

Meanwhile, an assessment from Energy Department scientists found that over a 15 year period, EVs can bring fuel cost savings of between $3,000 and $10,500 on average. 

“If you take an electric vehicle and you compare it to a similar type of gas car and you look at the total cost of ownership of the cars, in other words, the purchase price, plus the dramatically lower costs for fuel and for maintenance, in fact, they’re not more expensive,” said Joel Levin, executive director of Plug In America. 

Meanwhile, Reinish said that it’s important for Democrats to emphasize what they are doing to bring electric vehicle prices down.

“Republicans are not doing anything — and Democrats should get it together and point this out — they’re not doing anything to bring prices down or to … bring that opportunity to more people in an affordable way,” he said. 

Levin also argued that it’s a “better problem” that people see electric vehicles as a luxury item that they want to own rather than a concession that they need to make to fight climate change.

“If you have to pick your problems, it’s a better problem to have,” he said. “The problem that it’s a desirable car and everybody wants one and there’s a perception of being elitist, that’s a better problem than ‘it’s a poorly engineered clown car.’ ” 

The version of the Democrats’ spending bill that passed the House contained tax credits for electric vehicles of up to $12,500. A $4,500 credit for union-made vehicles, part of the $12,500, was among the sticking points as it faced opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

As talks appear to have resumed on a slimmed down package, Manchin in recent weeks has expressed some skepticism about incentives for electric vehicles more broadly.

Meanwhile, tax credits for electric vehicles were among those discussed during one of the bipartisan climate meetings that Manchin held. But, it’s not clear whether those meetings will ultimately amount to anything, and any incentives would likely face an uphill battle among the GOP. Strategist Doug Heye told The Hill that Republicans should allow Democrats to fight over the issue amongst themselves.

“It seems to be a fight amongst Democrats and so, let them have that fight, because it appears it’s going to be a stalemate,” he said. 

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