The rise of Washington car guys

Hey, know all that sweat you worked up doing your bit to save the auto industry?

Well, congratulations.

You didn't just save your job. You also convinced every politician and bureaucrat in Washington that he or she really does know what's best for the industry.

That's right. When the ship hit the rocks and you weren't drowned or flung overboard, you and your surviving mates busted your butts to save the ship.

And now you can hear Washington types high-fiving and saying, “Yay, our plan worked. We did it.” Some just promoted themselves to honorary “car guy” status.

Now, before you grind your teeth to powder … and you'll have to bear with me a moment on this …

They have a point.

The U.S. auto industry didn't die. GM and Chrysler still exist, suppliers still make parts, dealers still sell cars. I'm not ignoring the butcher's bill. It's bloody, hideous to contemplate and way, way too long.

But this is not the Apocalypse we once feared.

It's a significantly smaller industry. But those still kicking are patients on the mend, sitting up and starting to feel hungry.

It would have been worse without Washington.

As clumsy and reluctant as Washington's guided bankruptcies, clunkers, grants, loans and outright gifts of the past 15 months were -- and we're talking one stinking, steaming pile of a hard pill for a politician to swallow here -- it did help save the core of the U.S. auto industry.

Now every politician figures Detroit owes Washington. And everybody has an idea how Detroit can work off its debt. Emissions, fuel economy, alternative powertrains, saving unnecessary plants -- nothing is off limits. Why anger voters by adopting a national energy policy when you can simply order automakers to build tiny fuel-stingy cars?

Even after the federal government sells its stake in General Motors and Chrysler, that instinct to fix, to guide, to “improve the priorities” of the auto industry will linger.

So get ready for more helpful suggestions from the new car guys in Washington; the ones with legislative and regulatory teeth.