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Political Play of the Week

Flag waving and pickups win the fuel debate

By Bill Schneider
CNN Senior Political Analyst

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- How's this for dry and boring: a debate about fuel economy standards for motor vehicles.

But something happened to turn that debate into a colorful cultural confrontation -- and the political Play of the Week.

Environmentalists favor higher fuel economy standards as a way to reduce air pollution and combat global warming.

September 11 gives them an even stronger argument.

"We can completely rid ourselves of all the dependence we have currently on the oil in Saudi Arabia that we import on an annual basis," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

Opponents of raising fuel efficiency standards can talk about how many jobs it might cost, and how it might discriminate against U.S. automakers.

Instead, when the issue came before the Senate this week, they turned it into an attack on the American way of life.

"We should not have the federal government saying you are going to drive the purple people eater shown here," said Senator Trent Lott during Wednesday's floor debate.

Nonsense, said liberals. This is not a matter of lifestyle. It's a matter of technology.

"Here is the truth. This is Ford Motor Company's own advertisement. They advertise an SUV a vehicle that gives you all the room and power you want but uses half the gasoline," said Sen. John Kerry.

The auto industry rallied rural America to the theme, ``Save our pickups!''

"I submit to you, the back of a pickup is the 'think tank' of rural America," said Sen. Zell Miller.

Wednesday's Senate vote became a cultural showdown.

Support for tougher fuel standards was concentrated on the coasts. The heartland didn't like the idea.

It resembles the 2000 election map. But this vote was not close. The Senate rejected higher mileage standards, 62 to 38.

That's because opponents stole a constituency away from Al Gore: women. Why do soccer moms like to ferry their kids around the suburbs in what look like armored personnel carriers? Safety is a big reason.

"We have to cope with road rage. We have to cope with 18-wheelers breathing down our rear-view mirror, often just barreling down toward us," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland.

In the end, an economic issue became a cultural issue. Environmentalists got killed by a powerful alliance between rural America and the suburbs.

The SUVs and the pickup trucks ran over their opponents -- and picked up the political Play of the Week.




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