Every day, when hundreds of congressional staff and others get off subway trains near the U.S. Capitol, the first thing they see is an illuminated sign that shows a Nissan Altima painted boldly in red and white stripes and a large splash of blue.
The message is not subtle: Nissan North America Inc. has invested in America. It employs thousands of Americans. It builds cars and trucks in America. Consequently, it deserves, under the nation's laws, to be treated like other American companies.
In short, the battle by the new American automakers for acceptance in Washington goes on. Now, it is mostly a proverbial fight for hearts and minds. Rarely any more is it outright war with the Big 3 over policy differences.
But like propaganda leaflets dropped in a cease-fire zone, ad campaigns tailored for Washington movers and thinkers prove peace is not yet at hand.
Honda North America Inc., in recent ads designed for the Washington market, reminded decision makers that the company built a record 634,374 cars in Ohio last year.
The automakers' trade group, the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, periodically runs inside-the-Beltway ads touting its members' contributions to the U.S. economy.
And those ads are countered by the Big 3's American Automobile Manufacturers Association and its ad message, 'What America drives, drives America.'
WAR IS OVER?
Some on the international-brand side would like to declare victory.
Philip Hutchinson, president of AIAM, says he was gratified when Vice President Al Gore announced in February a new clean car program. Gore had AAMA President Andrew Card standing on one side of him and Yale Gieszl, executive vice president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., on the other.
'I think that is a very positive change, that we are recognized as players and they want us at the table,' Hutchinson says. 'And we're going to be there because we are players.'
But elsewhere in Washington there is still ample evidence that the new American manufacturers are not the equals of the Big 3. Among the more glaring examples:
The joint government-academia-industry research effort to develop technology for 80-mpg family sedans involves only General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chry-sler Corp. The international-brand companies are excluded.
An automotive trade advisory committee at the Commerce Department includes Big 3 members, but no one from the transplants.
And in one policy area where the Big 3 and international companies do have differences, Congress is revisiting the long-contentious issue of domestic content law.
The international manufacturers say the current law is unfair to them and consumers. For example, it counts Big 3 parts from Canada as 'domestic' but the value of the labor of Honda auto workers in Ohio as 'foreign,' critics point out.
A split also may be developing over the ground rules for President Clinton's proposed tax credits for buyers of ultra-fuel-efficient vehicles.
LUMP IT, SAYS CARD
For AAMA's Card, this is how it should be. The U.S. subsidiaries of Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., Honda Motor Co. Ltd., Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and BMW AG should not be treated as full-fledged American companies because, in his view, they are not. And they do not act as if they are.
'I don't see Toyota, Nissan, Honda taking the U.S. position - our government's position - on getting Japan to do what it should be doing on trade and economics,' he argues. 'If they are so American, why aren't they taking the U.S. position?'
Card, like Hutchinson, says the Big 3 and the international-brand companies agree on many federal issues. But Card complains that AIAM and its members don't bear their share of the burden of lobbying campaigns on those issues.
'They don't ante up,' he says. 'They want to be in the line, but they want to be way at the back of the line when it comes to paying. But they want to be right up in the front of the line for the credit.'
Such criticism is not new.
James Johnston, the former longtime chief of GM's Washing-ton office, says of the transplants: 'They have always had the advantage - and I don't say this with any hostility - the free-rider advantage. They knew they could live with anything the American manufacturers could live with in terms of emissions, fuel economy and those kinds of things because they came from a small-car base.
'That's pretty smart of them. But it ground on the Americans,' Johnston says.
EMOTIONAL FOR SOME
At Honda's Washington headquarters, officials routinely downplay any undercurrent of hostility between the Big 3 and their younger rivals.
'We didn't come here because of trade friction. We came here for our business plan and because it was the right thing to do,' says Toni Harrington, assistant vice president at Honda. But she acknowledges the U.S. auto industry still is not completely homogenized, and may never be.
'There are people that are never going to be swayed, based on the facts,' she says. 'They have an emotional commitment. They have a political commitment. Those people - we know where they stand.'