In the annals of populist political theater, where corporate CEOs are trotted out before Congress and grilled about wronging the little guy, Toyota chairman Akio Toyoda's appearance yesterday in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform should've been a blockbuster. After all, unlike Lloyd Blankfein and the clever big shots of Wall Street, he's not even an American!
Except that Toyota hasn't been entirely without American political support these last few weeks. Before Mr. Toyoda went to Washington, the governors of Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Texas, and West Virginia — low-wage, right-to-work states where Toyota has built (or, in the case of Mississippi, is in the process of building) auto plants that provide close to 17,000 jobs — wrote letters to Congress asking them to go easy on the guy. And on the day of Toyoda's testimony, Haley Barbour, the Republican governor of Mississippi, took to the op-ed page of the Washington Post to reiterate his belief that Toyota is "the world's premier automobile manufacturer" and to caution against "a rush to judgment." Toyota, Barbour argued, "is as much an 'American' car company as any other."
Indeed, the politics of the Toyota recall — and those of the auto industry in general — are a bit of a jumble right now. In late 2008, the Bush White House pushed Congress to bail out Detroit's struggling automakers; to not do so, Dick Cheney reportedly told congressional Republicans, would lead to "Herbert Hoover time." But three southern Republican senators — Alabama's Richard Shelby, South Carolina's Jim DeMint, and Tennessee's Bob Corker — rebelled against the White House and persuaded their fellow GOP senators to reject any deal. They ostensibly did so out of free-market principle, but it wasn't a coincidence that Shelby's, DeMint's, and Corker's states have plants owned by Japanese or German automakers that stood to benefit from the Big Three's demise. Eventually, Bush, and later Obama, found a way to extend billions of dollars in federal loans to Detroit without congressional approval. But while the loans saved General Motors and Chrysler, they also allowed anti-auto-bailout posturing to become the pastime of plenty of congressional Republicans, not just those from states that are in hock to foreign carmakers.
Yesterday, a number of Republicans on the House Oversight Committee went so far as to echo Barbour's concerns about the Obama administration's impartiality on Toyota. While none of these Republicans could quite bring themselves to defend the Japanese carmaker, several asked Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who testified before Toyoda, whether the Obama administration was busting Toyota's chops over safety issues that it had let slide at GM because of the amount of government money invested in the latter. At various points, it was hard to remember that the hearing was about Toyota's automotive transgressions and not Obama's.
Of course, it's one thing to take shots at American automakers and the American government in the process of taking shots at a foreign car company. But the America-bashing, Toyota-defending governors are walking a finer line — especially Barbour and Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, who both appear to be angling to be the GOP's presidential nominee in 2012. Their staunch defense of Toyota might play in Blue Springs, Mississippi, and Princeton, Indiana. But how will it play in Peoria?