WASHINGTON — Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), the author of tough legislation that could result in U.S. retaliation against Japan for practices that have produced huge trade surpluses, said Saturday that Japanese autos--a backbone of Tokyo's export business--are better made than American cars.
Citing the quality ratings of the magazine Consumer Reports, Gephardt said: "All the best-rated cars were Japanese; all the worst-rated cars were American. That's not a good sign."
Gephardt, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, said U.S. trade problems are symptomatic of deeper difficulties which reflect a lack of leadership from President Reagan and his "morning in America" philosophy.
"In the long haul, our standard of living is going down," Gephardt said in an interview with television personality David Frost. "Slowly but surely, we're in decline. And that really worries me because America is based on the assumption that there's a rising tide, and that people will do better; and if that rising tide falls apart, the whole assumption of our society falls apart and we really do get into some troubles."
Gephardt is the chief sponsor of trade legislation that has been branded as protectionist by its opponents, a label he disputes. The bill would authorize stiff selective tariffs and other barriers against imports from countries that refuse to open their domestic markets to American goods while selling large amounts of products in this country.
Japan, with exports to the United States running about $60 billion a year ahead of its imports of American goods, is considered a prime target of the measure.
Gephardt said the bill was "the antithesis of protectionism" because it was aimed specifically at nations that close their domestic markets to American goods. He said a protectionist approach would levy tariffs across the board on all products coming into the United States regardless of the trade practices of the exporting nation.
But when Frost asked if the United States was trailing Japan in the "skills of the future," Gephardt said: "In some ways we are. We have a $60-billion trade deficit with Japan this year. That's a good sign there's something wrong, that we're not competing, that our products have fallen behind."
Asked if the Japanese make better cars, Gephardt said: "Yes, they have better quality ratings. The fit and finish is better. The doors . . . when they are slammed they sound better and probably are tighter. They have more gizmos on their cars than many of our cars do.
'We're Doing Better'
"But we're doing better. I must say the American industry is really improving," he said.
The interview was one of a series of hourlong interviews of the presidential candidates. The program is scheduled to be broadcast today.
Gephardt used Japan as a metaphor for his theme of American leadership deficiencies.
"Just think about Japan for a moment," he said. "It is a country of 125 million people, half the population of the United States on a land mass that's less than the size of the state of Pennsylvania. No natural resources to speak of. They import over half their food. And they are absolutely murdering us in the international marketplace now.
"If they can do that with those facts, can you imagine what America can be if we get focused and we get leadership and we get the people motivated to really be good," he said.
On other topics, Gephardt:
--Dismissed as "silly," the Reagan Administration's concern about the leftist government in Nicaragua and said he would cut off financial support for the anti-government Contras. He said most Nicaraguan government leaders are communists and it was a pity the country did not have genuinely free elections or a free press, "but this is really not something that I think we have the right to introduce military power to try to effect."
--Opposed any change in current abortion laws, but called for improved family planning services and other programs intended to provide alternatives to abortion. He said he was troubled by abortion but, "I've concluded that trying to change the law . . . is not the right answer."
No Lasting Effect
--Predicted that Reagan's presidency would have no lasting effect, although he said the President had "moved us in a particular direction" for a time. "At the end, his leadership was called into question because he was not truly in charge of his own Administration and not driving its policies," he said.
Meanwhile, in an interview on Cable News Network, Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart called for the United States to end its naval operations in the Persian Gulf, leaving it up to European nations to escort oil tankers endangered by the Iran-Iraq War.
"We ought to keep our carrier task force in the northern Indian Ocean but we ought to insist that European nations who are much more dependent on that oil than we are--and who have viable and strong modern navies--provide the escort service in the gulf itself with our support," Hart said.
He cited Britain, France and Italy as nations that should be escorting shipping in the gulf. He did not mention that Britain and France already are doing so.
Hart also said the U.S. government should "of course" put much more pressure on Israel to bring about a peaceful end to Palestinian riots on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But he said Washington should provide economic assistance to improve the quality of life of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories "so that they are not seduced away by the radical elements into protests and finally into terrorist violence."