Borrowing a page from France, the Obama administration offered Cash for Clunkers, a program in which cars without radios were given country music CDs. The endeavor has been proclaimed an unqualified success, in that unqualified federal workers succeeded as well as they could, which was not well at all. (Historical Note: The French program was titled Cake for Clashers and authored by the late Marie Antoinette.)
On a more serious note, the Cash for Clunkers idea, whatever its economic and environmental merits, whatever its Constitutional legitimacy, occupied a rare historic moment. When the history of 2009 is written, CFC will be seen to have played a central role in the seismic political tremor of this year. The conservative side of the political debate not only dodged a bullet here, it even loaded up on some gift ammo for its own weaponry.
To dramatize my point, let me describe the political situation where I live. Although my byline usually says North Miami Beach, my home is located in an unincorporated section of Miami-Dade County which abuts the City of North Miami Beach. The city is anxious to swallow us up, which would expand its tax base. The county has approved a special election where we get to decide if we want to join the city.
Sensing that the votes were not there yet for incorporation, they have elected not to schedule the election… yet.
In the meantime, they try to make the sale. We keep hearing about the expanded police services, the expanded garbage pickups, the expanded recreational facilities, the superior aesthetics. The problem for them is we live right here side by side with the city people. For example, the family two houses to the north of me are in the city limits. So we get to see up close exactly what goes on.
Then suddenly there was a crime wavelet. Over a few weeks there were a series of robberies, home invasions and street muggings. Citizens roared, politicians quailed and a large communal meeting was called at a nearby public school. We all came with passion, half indignant and half hopeful, to hear and to be heard.
On that stage that night the two police chiefs appeared together, the city and the county. They each pledged to do their utmost. I said to myself, “Here is the opportunity for the city to win us over. If their half of the neighborhood becomes noticeably safer, we will all line up for incorporation.” Weeks went by and things improved, but uniformly. When the crime was high it was equal on both sides of the city boundary; when it became low again it was still equal.
The federal government, as administered by the minions of Obama, had a similar shot. In the midst of a huge philosophical debate about the role of Washington in the life of the little guy, one highly specific, recognizable, understandable, observable federal project with a beginning, a middle, an end and a catchy title emerged. Had Elvis been in the House, had they pulled it off coolly, the fellows in the East Wing would have been flying high indeed.
I would venture to say that despite the trillions of dollars and the high risk to life, limb and liberty in the health reform proposals, Cash for Clunkers could have put it over the top. If all the dealers were paid in a timely fashion, there would have been a large pool of happy campers in that parking lot. Everyone would have been beaming about how gracious Uncle Sam was being to us in relieving our exhaustion, our fuming and our exhaust fumes.
But the delivery of the cash is still clunking along as we speak. Dealers are getting a raw deal as they wait for bungling bureaucrats who keep messing up the paperwork. Applications get kicked back repeatedly for technicalities. The cars are off the lots, the clunkers have been disabled, but where is the cash? Under the TARP? Fed to the dogs? Used for green fuel?
This was a golden opportunity for Obama and his merry band, but instead the Sheriff of Nottingham wins the round. Ah, the good old days when you could take from the rich to give to the poor without a lot of red tape! Seeing the modern-day Friar Tucks tucking their filled-out forms behind government desks while filling out forms is somehow incongruous. Maybe we need the eyeshade Republicans back in power if only to give the redistributionists back their rogue panache.