This month, the Detroit 3 will resume their plea in Washington for emergency federal aid to help avert bankruptcy. They can expect to deal with a less hostile Congress and a less ideologically narrow White House than they confronted last year.
But it's also true that the companies — especially General Motors and Chrysler LLC — must make an even more compelling case for taxpayer support because the scope of their needs is expanding.
Last week, GM and Chrysler were set to collect the first installment of $8 billion in federal loans; GM is due for $9.4 billion more early this year and a $1 billion loan to support GMAC Financial Services. Although Ford Motor is not taking loans, it seeks access to a $9 billion line of government credit.
In all, the Detroit 3 estimate they need at least $34 billion in government help to survive the recession. And some industry analysts say the automakers will need a mind-numbing $75 billion to $125 billion in aid to give them a strong footing for prosperity.
To persuade President Barack Obama and Congress that they are not throwing good money after bad, the Detroit 3 must cut costs almost like they were in bankruptcy. The companies have made a good start, and the UAW has shown admirable cooperation toward that end.
But much more must be done. The companies must figure out how to slash their overgrown retail networks without running afoul of state franchise laws that protect dealers. They must persuade already battered suppliers and skeptical bondholders to share the pain.
Most of all, they must show how they will not only survive but thrive in the marketplace over the long haul. Fuel efficiency must be more than the marketing slogan du jour: Gasoline may cost $1.50 a gallon these days, but it won't be that cheap forever and perhaps not even for much longer.
Nor can the Detroit 3 expect the free ride that Washington has given financial institutions, which have pocketed nearly half of the $700 billion federal bailout fund with virtually no accountability. Last year's public assault by Congress on the Detroit 3 CEOs and UAW President Ron Gettelfinger showed that the domestic auto industry is too tempting a political target.
It might seem impossible for the Detroit 3 to do in the next three months what they could not do in the past decade or more. But they have no choice. Samuel Johnson's sound bite may apply: "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."