Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters

From the Center

It’s become increasingly clear in recent weeks that the Republicans have a major political problem with abortion – and no real idea how to address it. The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs Wade last summer may have single-handedly prevented the expected red wave from washing over Capitol Hill in the midterm elections, and the brewing battle over abortion medication appears likely to shape the 2024 campaign season.

But if the GOP is clueless on how to deal with abortion politics, Democrats seem to be just as baffled by how to navigate the equally-charged debate over immigration policy. In both cases, the party’s base is fundamentally at odds with the swing voters who decide presidential elections on an issue of critical importance. In neither case does the party in question have any plausible notion on how to bridge that gap. They face similar challenges on public safety issues, as Republicans are just as constricted on gun policy as Democrats are on how to deal with law enforcement.

But last week, the Biden administration opened up a new policy and political front that could end up being just as contentious in next year’s elections as any of these other hot-button topics. The Environmental Protection Agency announced its new regulations for greenhouse gas emissions last Wednesday, including protocols that will require two-thirds of new vehicles sold in the U.S. by 2032 to be electric. That is a marked acceleration of Biden’s previous goal that half of new vehicles sold by 2030 be electric and will almost certainly upend the economic, environmental and cultural landscape of a nation in which only 5.8 percent of new cars and less than 2 percent of trucks purchased last year were electric.

The logistical difficulties that will accompany such a rapid transformation are considerable, including the need to dramatically upgrade the nation’s electricity grid, increase the number of charging stations, securing large amounts of scarce minerals for batteries, not to mention looming judicial and economic obstacles that will impact the availability and affordability of the new brands of cars and trucks. But the political challenges could be just as difficult and may represent yet another immense cultural divide that will animate the 2024 election.

The most obvious argument will take place over cost. The federal tax incentives that provide up to $7500 for consumers do not cover the cost difference between gas-powered and electric vehicles and are not as widely available as originally envisioned given domestic manufacturing requirements. While there are certainly long-term economic benefits of owning an electric car or truck, many buyers are not able to afford the additional up-front expense, creating an additional barrier for working class voters. Car owners without access to off-street parking and who must commute long distances will also face additional impediments that will make the transition a more daunting one. The time required to recharge an electric vehicle and the difficulty of finding a charging station are frustrations that that will be lessened over time as the marketplace eventually adapts to meet these changing needs. But for these drivers, the adjustment will be much harder – and their resentments will be much greater.

Trump-era Republicans tend to live in rural and exurban areas and are less likely to have attended college. The cultural divides that split the country during Covid are continuing to drive the debates over abortion, immigration and other social issues. It’s easy to see how Red and Blue America will line up in the fight over electric vehicle mandates and deepen these divisions even further. It’s just as easy to predict a Republican presidential nominee leveraging this issue to motivate the GOP base, and how down-ticket conservatives will tap into the same populist anger.

This is not to suggest that the country’s – and the planet’s – move from fossil fuels is not a critically important task. But climate change has not been an issue that has motivated large numbers of voters in the past, and so the challenge for Biden and other Democratic candidates will be to frame an argument that will be just as emotionally resonant argument to their supporters as Republicans will make in opposition. Whether or not they succeed, it’s clear that the fight over electric cars will take its place as a visible and visceral flash point in our politics for the foreseeable future. In a country in which suburban voters decide elections, a fight over American driveways and garages is brewing.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Deputy Blog Editor Isaiah Anthony (Center bias).

Read more of Dan’s writing at: www.danschnurpolitics.com.