Ford/Firestone: An Election Year Double Whammy

In Beltway-speak, it's known as a scandal with legs. And to the alarm of officials at Ford Motor and Bridgestone/Firestone, that's precisely what the saga of allegedly defective Firestone radials on Ford sport-utility vehicles has become. Now, reflexively pro-business Republicans are joining reflexively pro-consumer Democrats to pummel Ford and its tiremaker for failing to warn safety officials and drivers about the catastrophic tread separation that can result from the potentially lethal mix of hot-selling Explorer SUVs and Firestone's AT and ATX radials.

This bipartisan pounding shows no sign of a letup anytime soon. Why? For starters, the unfolding tale has all the intrigue of a classic corporate potboiler. Both Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone officials, documents show, had ample warnings of problems that may have led to Explorer crashes and 88 U.S. deaths. While Ford and Bridgestone officials engage in mutual recriminations, House and Senate investigators are seeking proof that management covered up dangerous product defects.

POPULIST PLOY. Beyond the drama and the cost in human life, however, is the fact that the scandal broke in an election year. And not just any election year. Beginning with his populist assault on corporate giants at the Democratic Convention, Vice-President Al Gore has made huge political strides by insisting that consumers need more protection from corporations. What better way for other pols to also demonstrate their devotion to consumers than by going after Killer Tires?

Another reason for the unrelenting pressure on Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone is the ambitious Republicans orchestrating hearings on the affair: Louisiana Representative W.J. "Billy" Tauzin and Arizona Senator John McCain. Tauzin, who convened a dramatic Sept. 6 hearing, longs to chair the Commerce Committee. McCain, a legendary Senate showboat, knows a juicy story when he sees one. During his own Sept. 12 hearing, the former GOP Presidential contender peppered Ford CEO Jacques A. Nasser and Firestone officials with pointed questions about their roles in the affair.

McCain suggested that Congress may have interfered with auto safety regulators, the companies may have been "focused on profits rather than the safety of the public," and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration may have been "more concerned with paperwork than advancing the very causes it was created to serve." Hinting at a big legislative package to come, McCain said he would immediately try to free NHTSA from a congressional prohibition on rating SUVs for rollover potential.

Indeed, with polls showing that consumers harbor suspicions about management's truthfulness, Republicans are joining Democrats in proposing legislative remedies. Representative Fred Upton (R-Mich.) is introducing a bill that would require tiremakers to notify NHTSA when products are involved in recalls overseas. That's something neither Ford nor Firestone bothered to do when Firestone tires began self-destructing in Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and a dozen other countries. Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) introduced a measure on Sept. 7 that would slap a 15-year prison term on execs of companies who knowingly sell defective goods that cause a consumer's death.

That's just the sort of bill that worries carmakers. General Motors lobbyist Robert Walker, a former GOP representative, says some of his ex-colleagues' remedies are "way out on the fringe." Walker's hope--and Detroit's--is that once the TV lights go out, lawmakers will lose interest. But for now, pneumatic politics rolls on in Washington, and auto lobbyists are scrambling to get out of the way.