The Beltway
An occasional column by Gabe Nelson, Automotive News' D.C. correspondent, analyzing the auto industry's relationship with Washington.
GABE NELSON

Together, Hillary Clinton and NADA show their team spirit

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Gabe Nelson is a reporter for Automotive News and is based in Washington, D.C.
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NEW ORLEANS -- They might disagree with her political views, but auto dealers could learn a thing or two from Hillary Clinton.

Clinton captivated a crowd of 4,000 last week at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention here, drawing applause despite the Republican leanings of the group's members.

She did it by emphasizing shared American priorities on national security and economic growth and by spinning yarns about the cars she had driven, such as the yellow Fiat she owned while teaching at the University of Arkansas until it was stolen and wrecked in a high-speed chase. There was even a verbal wink at the notion of a Fiat reaching high speed.

Clinton hasn't driven a car since 1996, but she sure knows how to play to a room full of auto dealers.

It was a softer side of Clinton than the one people got used to seeing during two decades of nonstop political warfare, culminating in her bitter 2008 presidential campaign fight against Barack Obama. Time and again during her speech, Clinton returned to a message of unity -- that in all her travels and trials as secretary of state, she saw that the people of the world are aching to see America overcome its political divides.

"Whether Republican or Democrat or conservative or liberal, I want them to see we're all on the same team," Clinton said. "We're on the American team."

It's easy to be cynical, to say Clinton was acting the part of unifier for political gain. But the generous applause at the NADA convention made it feel, for a moment at least, like what Clinton was saying was possible.

With NADA in a pitched standoff with the Obama administration over bias in auto lending, both Clinton's message and tone are worth remembering.

David Westcott, the outgoing chairman of NADA and a Buick-GMC dealer from North Carolina, sat down for a Q&A with Hillary Clinton after her speech. The former first lady got "quite a few standing ovations" from dealers, Westcott said.

Photo credit: COURTESY NADA

Americans share certain core principles. We agree that discrimination is wrong. We agree that consumers should not be deceived into inflated prices. And we agree -- yes, even the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau -- that when dealers work hard to make affordable credit available, they deserve to be compensated.

Given the agreement on the underlying truths, it's not so far-fetched to think that the CFPB and dealers can treat each other with respect and come to a reasonable agreement.

NADA already is showing its softer, more pragmatic side. Last year, it changed its tack on Obamacare, urging members to gear up for compliance rather than hold out for an unlikely repeal.

Last month, on the eve of the convention, it came out with a proposed approach that could help ease concerns about loan discrimination.

It was an olive branch to the CFPB and a chance to rub out whatever bias may linger in the auto-loan market.

And just look at how NADA treated Clinton last week.

David Westcott, the outgoing chairman of NADA and a Buick-GMC dealer from Burlington, N.C., was every bit the Southern gentleman in his sit-down Q&A with the former first lady. He even brought his wife and his 92-year-old mother backstage to meet Clinton and talk about the family business.

It was a courteous gesture and a politically astute one, too. After all, she may be president some day.

Months ago, a few dealers were so disgusted by the selection of Clinton as a convention speaker that they threatened not to show up. The room was plenty full without them. And those who attended did NADA a big political favor by helping to demonstrate that the nation's auto dealers are ready to do business with anyone -- that they're on the American team.

"She got quite a few standing ovations," Westcott said, "but that's what we wanted."

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.


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