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Clarence Page: Is it an electric car or a Bidenmobile? Greening of transportation gets political.

When you think about it, there’s not much rational reason for electric vehicles to be a partisan political issue. But, as we all should know by now, election-year politics do not have to be rational. They only have to reflect what the players think will win.

That helps to explain why electric cars, trucks and SUVs have become a hot issue across the political spectrum. Everyone wants clean air and water, it appears, but many don’t want environmental improvements to impinge on their choice of how to get around.

The age-old conflict between the free market and government regulation helps to explain much of the partisan divide over the future of the automobile in the U.S. Add a high-stakes presidential election to the mix and the debate starts to get weird. “Bidenmobiles,” a derisive nickname critics now are giving to electric vehicles, has become a new culture-war battleground in the presidential race.

That’s even though surveys tell us EV owners aren’t just tree-hugging, whale-saving, sandals-wearing liberals. A lot of conservatives drive them, too — even some who lean toward Donald Trump.

On Wednesday, the administration of President Joe Biden announced one of the most significant pieces of its ambitious climate agenda: new tailpipe rules for passenger cars and trucks aimed at pushing the nation’s auto market more quickly toward electric vehicles and hybrids.

Yet, in a concession to complaints by automakers and labor unions, the rules are being phased in more slowly than originally proposed and also offer manufacturers more choices for how they want to comply.

The new plan pumps the brakes on another initiative the Environmental Protection Agency proposed last year as a faster ramp-up to EVs, a rule that would have ensured two-thirds of all vehicles sold are electric by the end of this decade.

But these concessions aren’t nearly enough for former President Trump, the Republican nominee trying to win back his old job. In speeches he has railed against EVs. He recently characterized EVs as “all” being made in China, even though Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act has pushed new EV manufacturing and assembly to the U.S.

In a statement Wednesday, President Joe Biden vowed the cars would be made by American workers. “U.S. workers will lead the world on autos making clean cars and trucks, each stamped ‘Made in America,’” Biden said. “You have my word.”

During a recent rally in Vandalia, Ohio, Trump caught our attention with his reckless use of the term “bloodbath” as he promised a “100% tariff” on cars made outside the U.S., arguing that domestic auto manufacturing would be protected only if he is elected.

“Now, if I don’t get elected, it’s going to be a bloodbath for the whole – that’s gonna be the least of it. It’s going to be a bloodbath for the country. That’ll be the least of it.”

The “least of it?” One shudders to imagine what he thinks “the most of it” could be.

Yet, contrary to many frightening headlines, the U.S. market for EVs is not collapsing. EV sales were up 40% in the last quarter of 2023 from the same quarter in 2022, according to Cox Automotive. EV sales in the U.S. also topped a million last year for the first time, but there still are questions about the market’s health and how quickly the transformation from gas-powered cars to EVs realistically can take place.

Perhaps the cars were overhyped in the beginning and thus are easy targets in an election year.

Surveys show the biggest consumer concerns include the sticker prices, the availability of charging stations, anxieties about running out of energy in the middle of nowhere, confusion about tax credits and — especially in places like Chicago — cold weather.

Cars always have been one of the most American of commodities. Mom, apple pie and Chevrolet, right? But for some, if our wheels aren’t spewing out carbon, they’re downright un-American.

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