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Howes: RIP John Dingell

John Dingell, 29, is sworn in as a member of Congress in 1955 by House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas
John Dingell website

John Dingell died the same day the “Green New Deal” appeared in Washington. Michigan’s legendary congressman would not have approved.

This driving force behind the Clean Air, Medicare and Affordable Care acts was notoriously suspicious of what he called the, quote, “damn enviros” and their idealized prescriptions for the economy. They, in return, pretty much hated Dingell, considering him too cozy with Detroit’s automakers and their union members.

Even in his final days at 92, he would have thundered as only he could about Green New Dealers proposing to restructure vast swaths of the transportation infrastructure and he would have been right.

The Dearborn Democrat never forgot who he represented for 60 years in Congress. He knew the auto industry drove the district’s economy, knew how federal policy could strengthen his beloved automakers, and knew how misguided lawmaking could undermine them.

Dingell knew his people back in and around Dearborn, Vice President Joe Biden said in his eulogy. That’s even if they’d never met him.

Dingell understood with absolute clarity how green idealism disconnected from business reality could imperil jobs, complicate engineering and drive costs higher.

And for that, the left wing of his own party could not forgive him. So much so that fellow Democrats in 2008 ousted Dingell from the chairmanship of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.

It was an especially nasty move, even by Washington standards. It confirmed that Barack Obama’s election heralded the ascendancy of Democrats totally unlike Dingell. They’d more likely be boomers than bedrock of the Greatest Generation. More likely supporters of public-sector unions fueled by taxpayer dollars than industrial unions allied with for-profit corporations.

In his memoir, Dingell acknowledged, quote, “those who are displeased with my environmental work” and its connection to the auto industry. “I possessed,” he said, “something that many of my environmentalist critics do not have: a deep and thorough understanding of how automotive manufacturing works.”

He got that right. That’s what informed Dingell’s politics and world view: capital-D Democratic principles viewed through a lens of competitive business. He knew the auto business. He championed it.

That’s what distinguished “Mr. D” from the vast majority of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle: he knew autos and their leaders.

Dingell retired from Congress in 2015. And his death means the auto industry finally lost the best friend in Washington it probably ever had. He was its protector, its conscience, unafraid to deliver the hard political truths its CEOs and unions might not want to hear.

Dingell died a Democrat. He didn’t leave his party so much as it left him, embracing the politics of campus elites and the money of the coastal tech crowd – often at the expense of the industrial heartland.

On the day he died, the Chairman offered a warning for our times: “I now leave you in control of the greatest nation of mankind, and pray God gives you the wisdom to understand the responsibility you hold in your hands.”

So do I, John. So do I.

I’m Daniel Howes of The Detroit News.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

Daniel Howes is columnist and associate business editor of The Detroit News. A former European correspondent for The News, he has reported from nearly 25 countries on three continents and in the Middle East. Before heading to Europe in 1999, Howes was senior automotive writer and a business projects writer. He is a frequent contributor to NewsTalk 760-WJR in Detroit and a weekly contributor to Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor.