Politics had a part in Boeing’s win of tanker contract

I should have put it in writing.

Last Wednesday, I was talking to a colleague at work about how all the analysts were predicting that Boeing didn’t have much of a chance of winning one of the biggest military contracts ever — the $30 billion tanker deal.

I didn’t understand why the analysts would think that. And I told him so.

You can call me a realist. You can call me a cynic. I wasn’t thinking about payloads and fuel burns and such. I just couldn’t believe that, in the political and economic climate that we’re facing today, our military leaders could pick a refueling jet from France over a Boeing product.

Ain’t gonna happen, I thought, too many jobs are at stake.

I was about to say that I thought it would happen when pigs fly, but I don’t want you to get the wrong idea.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the Airbus tanker offered by EADS, the one the company keeps insisting is a proven product unlike Boeing’s, which it kept referring to as a paper airplane.

You might remember that in January, EADS’ proven product was damaged when its refueling boom dropped into the ocean like a stale baguette while trying to pump some fuel into an F-16 fighter owned by the Australia’s department of defense.

Investigators haven’t determined what happened or why.

So there’s no way to know yet whether there’s something wrong with the EADS tanker. I’m just sayin’ that EADS shouldn’t be so quick to trumpet their “proven” product.

But I digress.

When Boeing won the deal last week, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, said he wasn’t surprised that Boeing won the bid.

“Only Chicago politics could tip the scales in favor of Boeing’s inferior plane,” he said. “EADS clearly offers the more capable aircraft. If this decision stands, our warfighters will not get the superior equipment they deserve.”

Since EADS had planned to perform final assembly of its Air Force tankers in Mobile, Ala., it’s easy to dismiss Shelby’s comments as sour grapes.

But I think Shelby’s partly right.

Politics were involved. Heavily involved. Who’s kidding whom?

Shelby’s comments immediately reminded me of “Ghostbusters,” the 1984 film that has a scene in which three jobless parapsychologists are trying to convince New York City’s mayor that his community is about to be destroyed by evil ghosts. Hire them, they say, and “you will have saved the lives of millions of registered voters.”

They got the jobs.

As goofy as this sounds, that’s sort of how the world works.

They just as easily might have said, “Pick the Boeing tanker and you will have saved the jobs of tens of thousands of registered voters.”

The Boeing deal wasn’t “Ghostbusters,” nor was it Chicago politics. It was Washington state politics, which is generally less sinister than evil ghosts or the Democratic machine in Chicago.

Rep. Norm Dicks was ecstatic after the contract was announced, saying he viewed Thursday as “the happiest day of my professional life.”

I’d watched him on television after the decision, saying he’d worked hard to convince the Air Force to do the math for how much it would cost to use the Boeing tanker and the Airbus tanker over a 40-year period.

The smaller, more fuel efficient Boeing tanker will save the country “billions of dollars” over those 40 years, Dicks said.

During the previous contest, which Airbus won, the Air Force had run the cost estimates for a much shorter period.

Dicks’ move was important and it was smart politics.

Boeing won on cost by more than 1 percent. If the win had been less than 1 percent, the Air Force would have analyzed the bids on a host of other factors, so Dicks’ political contribution was very important.

Sen. Patty Murray also worked tirelessly on the deal.

None of the politics would have worked if Boeing wasn’t offering a good product at a good price. It did and it won.

And what an important win it was.

The tanker decision is a huge one because the first deal is just for 179 tankers. The win not only gives Boeing a leg up on building more tankers for the Air Force, it also gives the company a leg up to build tankers for other countries.

If smart politics helped a good product win and saved thousands of American jobs, more specifically Washington state jobs, I’m onboard with that. As I said, I’m a political pragmatist and a bit of a cynic when it comes to thinking about how deals get done.

It’s sometimes hard to win on merits alone when your competitor also knows the importance of politics.

EADS offered Shelby and his constituents a lot of good jobs. He was working the political arena hard. He lost.

But the nation wins, because a Boeing win means more to the U.S. economy than an EADS win. And that’s why I thought the analysts were wrong to pick EADS.

Mike Benbow: 425-339-3459; benbow@heraldnet.com.

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