Newsman Sam Donaldson was once chided for not covering more "good" news. He always seemed to be reporting on what was wrong with the world, the person said.
Donaldson's reply was that if an organization, a person or a government comes in, says a program or plan is going to accomplish this and it does just that, it's not really news. It's when that optimistic plan fails that the media need to pounce for the public good. That's the job.
So it's not a big surprise that the Car Allowance Rebate System -- CARS, get it? -- is generating so much coverage lately. The federal government's so-called Cash for Clunkers program, on the surface, would seem to be an unmitigated success. A billion dollars that was supposed to last several months was gone in a week as thousands and thousands of consumers snapped up sweet deals that counted up to $4,500 of tax dollars against their purchase of a new, fuel-efficient and eco-friendlier vehicle. All they had to do was give up a gas-guzzling, exhaust-spewing junker that met the program's standards.
As of Thursday, another $2 billion has been infused into the program to take care of current and future Cash for Clunkers contracts. Having learned from the initial onslaught, officials now expect the new money to be gone by Labor Day.
It's not a surprise that Cash for Clunkers was a huge hit with car buyers. We are a nation of bargain hunters, even when it's just an illusion. I know people who will burn $2 worth of gas to drive to a store offering a 50-cents off coupon on a jug of milk. Over the years, I've had a lot of arguments with various people about various purchases, and almost all of them have ended with the words, "But it was on sale!"
We can debate all day about whether Cash for Clunkers is a prudent use of tax dollars. Could $3 billion be used for other pressing issues? Of course -- like, say, new speed boats for newspaper editors nationwide. But it's hard to argue with the Clunker ideal: Better fuel economy, a cleaner environment and a boost to an ailing auto industry that is vital to the country's economic recovery.
Still, guys cut from Sam Donaldson's cloth have reason to remain vigilant.
First, dealers aren't sleeping well right now, with millions of dollars of vehicles on the road for which they haven't been paid yet.
Second, their bed rest is further curtailed as dealers struggle to wade through the paperwork involved. It's the government, we understand, but this isn't the time to make stressed out dealers untangle a lot of string so a bureaucrat can say they're doing their due diligence.
Third, there is a huge downside to not getting Clunkers running like a new Ford Fusion and doing so very quickly. Maybe it's just the the government hasn't been able to shift gears fast enough to keep up with the overwhelming popularity of the program, but some potentially serious flaws have been exposed and they'll need fixing ASAP.
If dealers get stiffed and customers get miffed because their new vehicle has to be returned before the new car smell is gone, Cash for Clunkers is going to be remembered as just another government boondoggle and trust in an already dubious federal government will plunge toward empty faster than the gas gauge in a 30-year-old Econoline.
Just watch the Sam Donaldsons of the world come buzzing around then.