I like how the Democrats played this. Apparently Republicans didn't like the original amount, $4 billion, so it was reduced to $1 billion. But that money disappeared in the blink of an eye! Guess what!?!? It's a government program that has worked extremely well. Who woulda thunk it?
One great thing about this program is that no one has mentioned what it really is: welfare for white people. This is the government finding an excuse to shovel money to middle class people, the ones who are buying the cars, and people in the auto industry, from the manufacturers to the dealers. Many of those folks, particularly the ones making the cars, are middle-aged white guys. How many Latina lesbians do you think work on the line at Chevy? Not a whole lot, I'm guessing.
This is important because a subtext of much of our political debate is white resentment towards the government, based on a feeling that Democrats have been using government to redistribute wealth away from white people, particularly older white men, and towards undeserving minorities. This is one reason the "birther" movement is so bizarrely popular - people think Obama is not one of them, and that he is going to use his power as president to take things away from them, and give it to people who look like him - African Americans. That's why there is resistance to health care reform - same thing. When conservatives hear the word "government," they hear "someone who is going to take away my money, and give it to people who don't deserve it."
So this Cash for Clunkers program is a great idea as part of the battle against that idea. When someone gets a check from the government for a new car, it's a little harder for them to argue that the government isn't doing anything for them. The fact that it's wildly popular, and that Congress had to add more money, is icing on the cake, politically - it generates more publicity, and shows Congress actually doing something for the middle class in a very direct way.
One other unmentioned side benefit of this program is that it will be good for health care costs in this country. Newer cars are both more energy efficient and safer. Just about any new car has airbags all over the place, as well as better steering, handling, and braking. Someone in a crash is far more likely to survive with minimal injuries, or even to just survive, in a new car than in a car made 10 or 15 years ago. I have no idea how to calculate the benefits from fewer injuries, but, again, it's icing on the cake - a benefit that we get from this program on top of the benefits we are already getting.
And it's a great example of bipartisanship! According to the NY Times, "Over all, 239 Democrats and 77 Republicans voted in favor, while 14 Democrats and 95 Republicans voted against the measure."
All these great benefits! And only $1 billion! Of course, as Everett Dirksen may or may not have said, "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money." I would amend to add, a successful government program here, a successful government program there, and pretty soon you're talking about making the government work for the American people!