Move over, Solyndra. Conservatives opposed to the Obama administration's spending on clean energy have a new whipping boy.
The electric Chevrolet Volt is the new focus of angry conservative blog posts, testy congressional hearings and joking videos. And Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have taken shots at the car's puny sales and size, with Gingrich jeering, "You can't put a gun rack on a Volt."
The Volt, critics say, represents another failed investment by President Obama in a clean-energy effort, following on the heels of the more than half-a-billion dollars from the stimulus sent to the now-bankrupt solar equipment company Solyndra. That the Volt is produced by General Motors Co., a company still partially owned by the government after the 2009 bailout, only adds fuel to conservatives' ire.
"It becomes a campaign issue because it's woven into the narrative that this is what President Obama's administration does: It provides enormous subsidies and puts billions of dollars into green energy that the public doesn't want," Lansing, Mich.-based Republican strategist Steve Mitchell said.
"To a candidate trying to appeal to conservative voters ... the Chevy Volt represents the type of intrusion into private sector by the government and it represents enormous financial resources being spent on technology that the public does not want."
The political chatter is loud enough that GM was forced to respond with a commercial. "There's been a lot talk about the Chevy Volt lately," it says. "How about some facts?"
The ad, which launched online on Feb. 14, lists awards and safety recognitions the car has won. The GM effort was boosted last week by the launch of the company's "btw" blog, which says it is aimed at offering GM's "point of view, when the collective view gets a little clouded."
But Volt critics aren't relenting. Red State contributor Ben Howe launched a new website and Twitter feed this week that promotes a tongue-in-cheek effort to make the Volt Obama's running mate.
GM has "proven that in America you can make it in any business, as long as you have unlimited financial resources and the backing of the United States government," an actor says in a parody video produced by Howe for his site. "I don't know about you, but I think that's more than worse the couple-hundred-thousand dollars it costs taxpayers every time somebody buys one of these suckers."
Howe said the video and Twitter feed are meant to draw attention to the cost of the auto industry bailout, which he said was an overreach of government. And, he added, the Volt also represents the White House trying to interfere in the auto market to promote a clean-energy strategy that Howe deemed unsuccessful.
"They're pushing for something that the market would naturally do and in a way I think is dangerous," Howe said.
Howe's website links to another site, BailoutCost.com, which tallies the taxpayer cost of the auto bailout. Howe, who says he did not create the BailoutCost site, said he will continue to hammer on the Volt site as long as the bailout remains a campaign issue.
'An idea whose time has not come'
Obama has frequently touted the revival of the U.S. auto industry as one of his administration's economic bright spots, with frequent appearances at clean-car manufacturing plants.
The administration's deal with the auto industry to nearly double fuel economy standards by 2025 has also been cited by Obama as one of his top environmental initiatives.
That, combined with an administration policy to promote the purchase of clean vehicles, has put a political target on the Volt's hood.
"We're big enough to understand that in this election season we will be a political talking point. We get that," said Greg Martin, a spokesman for GM. "This car represents a singular American technical achievement and we're going to defend it and make sure the facts are represented."
David Friedman, deputy director of the clean vehicles program at the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, said he was not surprised to see the Volt drawn into the political fray.
"Each administration will come in and look for a new solution, a new opportunity or technology that has real promise," Friedman said. "Too often, whether it's Republican or Democrat, they will abandon technologies their predecessors were pushing. If that happens, the next party has a chance to turn the previous party's technology into a straw dog."
Obama set a goal of putting 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015, a promise he has backed by incentivizing government purchases of electric vehicles and hybrids. The administration has also offered a $7,500 tax credit for anyone who buys an electric vehicle and -- in its fiscal 2013 budget proposal -- offered to raise it to $10,000.
Much of the criticism has focused around the perceived low sales of the Volt, which sold 7,671 cars in 2011 and failed to meet its goal of selling 10,000 vehicles. Critics have said that the low sales show that the public is not excited about electric cars and that they would prefer to purchase large SUVs.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, speaking to a Boston radio station in December, said the Volt was an "idea whose time has not come" in reference to its low sales. A frequent opponent of the auto bailout and fuel economy standards, he had previously questioned the viability of the Volt, saying "you don't drive cars with a windmill."
But GM has frequently pushed back against accusations that the car was failing, saying that it has sold the cars it has produced and that they are pleased with progress. Boosters point to the low early sales of hybrids as a sign that it simply takes time for a new technology to take off.
The very nature of the car as a hybrid electric has also made it an easy target for the right. Fox News contributor Eric Bolling, who has blasted the Volt in the past, recently aired a report on a test drive he took in the car. During that video, he laments that the car's electric charge runs out in the Lincoln Tunnel on his commute to work (the car's electric battery is designed to run out after 30 or 40 miles, when a gas motor kicks in).
And former House Speaker Gingrich's crack that you couldn't put a gun rack on the Volt hit at perceptions that the small car cannot compete with large SUVs or pickup trucks.
GM responded to the slam with its first -- and to date only -- post on the "btw" blog, saying the comment was "like saying 'You can't put training wheels on a Harley.'"
"Actually, you can. But the real question is 'Why would you?,'" GM spokesman Selim Bingol wrote.
But perhaps the most public bout of criticism of the Volt came at a January House hearing on the fire risk from the Volt batteries. The hearing in the House Oversight Committee came after a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation into a pair of fires in test vehicles at DOT facilities.
The contentious hearing offered lawmakers -- including former Chevy dealer, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), and Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) -- a chance to blast the White House's electric car subsidies and GM's push for the cars.
"Like in the case of Solyndra, the President has closely tied his reputation to the success of the Volt," the committee said in a report released at the hearing, which also accused the administration of covering up the cars' fire risk to protect its political interests.
In response to the barrage of criticism ahead of the hearing, GM CEO Dan Akerson quipped, "Although we loaded the Volt with state-of-the-art safety features, we did not engineer the Volt to become a political punching bag."
The Volt is hardly the only electric car on the market, but observers say it -- rather than the Nissan Leaf or Fisker Karma -- has captured almost all of the attention. Mitchell said that reflected an attempt to make one vehicle the "cause celebre" rather than scattering the message across different types of cars.
Plus, strategist David Doyle said, the Volt's ties to GM make it a two-for-one package for critics who also want to attack the bailout.
"There's no question that the fact that GM is still partially owned by the taxpayers makes this an issue that comes up," said Doyle, the vice president of the Lansing-based Marketing Resource Group.
A famous photograph of Obama driving a Volt off the assembly line makes it easy for critics to link him to that car. But UCS's Friedman said it was ironic that people were set on linking Obama and the Volt, since GM started working on the car before the Democrat took office.
"These things happen regardless of who's in the White House," Friedman said. "It takes time to get a technology right and, as anyone in the auto industry knows, it takes 15 years to turn over a fleet. But the 15-year story doesn't fit a 2-year or 4-year" election cycle."
Although the Obama administration has not responded directly to the criticisms launched against the Volt outside of some of the safety concerns, the comments have gotten response from supporters and drivers. GM's Martin noted the "passion and devotion" of Volt owners, who have used several online forums to jump on the criticisms.
After Gingrich's gun rack joke, Atlanta driver John McDole responded with a video, showing him installing a gun rack in the back of his own Volt. Others have posted on message boards and blogs about the cost of operating their Volt and safety concerns.
Even Snopes.com, a fact-checking website that addresses pop-rocks-and-soda-type conspiracies, offered up a post debunking claims that the Volt cost seven times more to operate than a normal car.
Friedman said that the Volt had gotten caught up in a political fight but that the car would rise above politics and see a bigger market impact.
"The benefits of these technologies are so large that we're just about at a point where people in the middle of the political spectrum need to move to electric cars," he said. "There aren't a lot of people left fighting about electric cars, but what is left is the fight over how we're going to support them."
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