Newt Is Not So Nutty

When advising Americans to drive slower is the best solution to high oil prices Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist can offer, then this country is in trouble. And when the best idea (a short-lived one, thankfully) Republican leadership has to offer is a $100 check to all Americans at the end of the summer to compensate for gas prices, America is in trouble. The Democratic answer, raising gas taxes

When advising Americans to drive slower is the best solution to high oil prices Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist can offer, then this country is in trouble.

And when the best idea (a short-lived one, thankfully) Republican leadership has to offer is a $100 check to all Americans at the end of the summer to compensate for gas prices, America is in trouble.

The Democratic answer, raising gas taxes to force us to drive less, is even worse. Compensate for high gas prices by making them higher? That illogical idea sounds like it is from somebody addicted to crack, not oil.

Surprisingly a lot of usually reasonable people, including AutoNation Inc. CEO Mike Jackson, — normally a Republican — are drinking the Koolaid on this one.

It's time for some fresh ideas.

A few optimists think the upcoming summit (postponed twice now) between the White House and the leaders of the Big Three will result in some solutions. More likely, it will just be a waste of time and corporate jet fuel.

But an interview I did with Newt Gingrich about the challenges facing auto companies shows there may yet be some sanity.

If all you remember of Gingrich is an angry Republican, armed with the “Contract with America,” leading his party's charge on Capitol Hill in 1994, it might be time for another look.

Indeed, the automotive industry should do itself a favor and pay attention to what he has to say.

Gingrich, who served in Congress from 1979-99 and as Speaker of the House from 1995-99, today seems to be carving out a niche for himself as the “National Thinker.”

Now on the speaker circuit offering solutions for many of the country's problems, he is a much gentler Gingrich than when he was House leader.

He spoke at the American Import Automobile Dealers Assn. annual gathering in Washington D.C. He has a great intellect, an insatiable curiosity for technology and science, and exerts a lot of effort trying to explain how such disciplines can answer many of the country's challenges.

Cynics attribute his recent activity, including his many trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, as groundwork for a possible run at the White House in 2008, something Gingrich says he doubts will happen.

While he may have mellowed, he has not abandoned his conservative principles. His ideas for the auto industry are framed by those, and focus on incentivizing the industry to become more competitive.

Gingrich was asked what he would say to the auto makers if he were president. His answer is short on details, but provides a philosophical road map for recovery.

“The Big Three need to get their act together,” he says. “I would tell them to come back and give me a viable strategy that will enable them to become the most competitive companies in the world. If you can't do that, then you can't survive.”

Gingrich also argues the United Auto Workers union needs to be “in the middle of that discussion.”

He wishes every UAW member could spend a week in China, just so “they understand better the level of competition their companies are up against.”

What about government's role? “The President and Congress should have enormous interest in not turning their backs on one of our nation's most important industries,” Gingrich says. “We can't write off a major U.S. interest.”

But the Big Three should not expect bailouts or protectionist trade policies that decrease competition, Gingrich believes. Instead, the assistance should come in the form of tax incentives, decreased regulations and creative, technological market-based solutions reducing health-care costs.

He calls for meetings with automotive and oil industry leaders, government officials and scientists to develop a national energy policy.

“We don't need one meeting, one time,” he says. “There needs to be several meetings.”

The question is, is anyone listening?

Cliff Banks is director of editorial development for Ward's Dealer Business magazine.

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