Veteran lobbyist looks back on decades-long mpg battle

Liberatore ends long auto career

Former lobbyist Robert Liberatore, center, introduces Dieter Zetsche, left, to Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo. Photo credit: COURTESY BRYCE HARLOW FOUNDATION
WASHINGTON — On a night in 1993 when Congress cast key votes to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement, just-retired Chrysler Corp. CEO Lee Iacocca was a guest at the Clinton White House.

As a reward for leading a business lobbying campaign for the treaty, Iacocca spent the night in the Lincoln Bedroom. Joining him at the White House was Robert Liberatore, Chrysler's chief Washington lobbyist.

"It was one of his great thrills," Liberatore said of Iacocca's visit. "It's too bad he didn't stay involved in the public policy world."

Fifteen years later, Liberatore's recollection is important for several reasons:

-- This presidential campaign year, Democratic candidates — including Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, who was first lady in 1993 — have attacked the watershed U.S. trade deal with Mexico and Canada.

-- Democratic candidates and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the all-but-certain Republican nominee, have condemned the role of lobbyists in shaping national policy.

-- The anecdote offers a reminder that Liberatore's recent retirement, after 23 years of representing the industry, is costing automakers one of their most seasoned keepers of institutional memory.

White-hat lobbyists

Liberatore, 59, left Daimler AG last month to become a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a think tank that specializes in trans-Atlantic issues. He is a Democrat and has hinted at interest at joining a presidential administration.

Liberatore reflected on his career in an interview with Automotive News and a speech this month to the Bryce Harlow Foundation, a Washington nonprofit group that seeks to promote ethical standards for lobbyists. The group gave Liberatore its award for excellence in business-government relations. Harlow, a top aide to President Eisenhower, spent more than 50 years in government and business posts in Washington.

At the Harlow event, Liberatore was introduced by Jack Quinn, his former roommate at Georgetown University. Quinn was Vice President Al Gore's chief of staff and is now a partner in a Washington lobbying firm.

Liberatore said he and Quinn negotiated details of the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, a government-industry research program during the Clinton administration. The program aimed to produce ultra-fuel-efficient vehicles, but critics complain it did little other than stave off tougher government fuel economy standards.

In his speech, Liberatore expressed regret that he did not persuade his bosses at Chrysler to do better on fuel economy. He noted that automakers have shown can-do ability on other issues. Car companies initially called changes to the 1990 Clean Air Act unattainable, he said, but then met them well ahead of schedule.

Career highlights
Some highlights of Robert Liberatore's career
1975: Leaves Chase Manhattan Bank for staff of Sen. Floyd Haskell, D-Colo.
1985: Moves from Capitol Hill to Chrysler ok with story
2008: Retires as group senior vice president of Daimler AG to become senior fellow at German Marshall Fund, a think tank
Future: Has signaled his interest to be part of a new Democratic administration

Fuel economy war

Liberatore often was an architect of industry strategies to block higher fuel economy mandates. Early this decade he helped redefine the fight over fuel economy as a battle for the rights of Americans to own the light trucks they need and want.

Before that he used his ties in Congress to help engineer a 1997 Senate resolution that virtually ensured the United States would not join the Kyoto climate-change treaty. But Liberatore insisted he was not a hard-liner on environmental issues.

"My instinct has always been that if there were a deal to be made, we ought to at least consider it," he said.

Liberatore cited a meeting in the early 1990s with then-Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., an advocate of sharply higher fuel economy standards. Liberatore and UAW lobbyist Dick Warden told Bryan that if he offered a more modest proposal than the 40-mpg standard he demanded, they would consider supporting it.

Bryan rejected the offer. The industry dug in its heels. The stalemate dragged on until last December, when Congress voted to raise fuel economy standards 40 percent by 2020, to a fleet average of 35 mpg.

Liberatore said higher gasoline prices are creating consumer demand for fuel-efficient vehicles. "Our protest has always been, don't try to get us to sell little cars to people when gas costs $1.25 a gallon," he said. "They won't want them."

Long and winding road

Liberatore's path to high-level corporate lobbying had unlikely origins. He said he drove from the United States to Chile in 1970 to "observe the (Marxist) revolution firsthand." He tried international banking but said he didn't have much success making good loans in Jamaica.

Liberatore began his Washington career working for former Sen. Floyd Haskell, D-Colo. In 1979, while working for Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., he helped craft the government's bailout of Chrysler, which was near bankruptcy. Byrd insisted that the bailout include a provision for employee stock ownership, Liberatore recalled.

Liberatore joined Chrysler in 1985 and became chief of its Washington office in 1992. He continued to lead the office after Daimler-Benz AG acquired Chrysler Corp. in 1998. He took charge of DaimlerChrysler's external affairs in 2004 and stayed with Daimler when the merger was undone last year.

Despite the recognition Liberatore has gotten, he conceded that not everyone has been impressed. He recalled a meeting with Iacocca in the mid-1980s when the Chrysler chief asked his age. Liberatore responded that he was 38.

Iacocca retorted that when he was 36, he already was vice president of Ford division. 

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