WASHINGTON - Andrew Card has this to say to executives of the former Big 3 about the demise of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association: 'You're going to miss us when we're gone.'
The AAMA, the unabashedly America-first trade group that Card has headed as president since September 1993, will shut down at midnight Dec. 31. A replacement group of nine domestic and import-brand companies will not be up and running for several months.
In an hour-long interview at AAMA's gradually emptying Washington headquarters last week, Card pointed out that AAMA gave regulators and lawmakers one-phone-call access to auto-industry thinking on key issues. That advantage has been lost just when legislative agendas and strategies are being set for the year ahead, he contended.
'Most government policy makers don't want to make three calls, never mind 23 calls. They like to make one call,' Card said, noting that issues crucial to the industry now are unfolding both at the federal level and in states across the country.
REPLACEMENT NOT READY
Even after the launch of the replacement organization - to be called the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers - members will need time to build relationships and develop positions, he warned.
'It will be a rocky road for the first several months,' said Card, who is not directly involved in creating the new group.
'They will agree on only a few issues, until they trust each other, and then there will be more issues, but that's a normal process to go through.'
James Olson, senior vice president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. and one of the industry executives working on forming the alliance, confirmed last week that the founders are still at the stage of looking for office space, planning staff levels and recruiting a chief executive.
'We are not working on our first spat because we don't have a house in which to have it yet,' he said.
Olson also acknowledged that one of the most important debates for the industry - over expected proposals for a new round of federal tailpipe emission standards - likely will be under way before the alliance is fully operational.
WHO KILLED AAMA?
Another industry executive said the new alliance is considering involvement in more issues than the limited safety and environmental matters originally envisioned by General Motors and Ford Motor Co.
The executive, who asked not to be named, said the only issue definitely off the table at this time is trade.
Card said he would not be surprised to see the alliance evolve into a more comprehensive AAMA-like organization. Despite that, he assiduously avoided criticizing the Big 3 CEOs who decided in September to disband AAMA instead of adapting to it to changing conditions, principally the takeover of Chrysler Corp. by Daimler-Benz AG and the formation of DaimlerChrysler AG.
'They had every right to do it. This is not an organization run by the organization. It is an organization owned and run by its members,' Card said.
But he also acknowledged, as has been suggested, that there was more behind the dissolution than just the historic merger.
'Personality plays a role. So it's not just the corporate direction. It's also the personalities,' Card said.
He declined to say who among the Big 3 might have been unhappy with AAMA's approach. Nor would Card comment on industry speculation that Ford, wanting to be seen as an environmental leader, felt constrained by the need for consensus at AAMA, and that GM was motivated by a desire to cut costs.
But he acknowledged that Ford executives, in May, were the first to raise the possibility of dissolving AAMA.
'Believe me, I am not bitter. I am proud. I am very proud of the job I've done,' Card said.
BASIC QUESTIONS REMAIN
He also maintained that AAMA's hard-line position on trade and on the Big 3's role in the U.S. economy still are relevant for Ford, GM and DaimlerChrysler. Basic questions about access to the Japanese and Korean markets and about how to do business in China have not been answered, Card said.
As for his own future, the 51-year-old Massachusetts native said: 'I have a lot of opportunities. ... I'm going to be patient and follow my passions.'
He might give electoral politics another try. 'I'd love to run for office,' he said.
Card, a former state legislator in Massachusetts, rose to White House deputy chief of staff and Transportation Secretary in the Bush administration.
But no elective office will pay what AAMA did. The association's most recent tax-exempt return filed with the Internal Revenue Service shows Card's salary in 1997 was $652,000.