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Caught Green-Handed

GOP contenders contort themselves over cap and trade.

A few years ago, four of the current Republican presidential candidates—Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, and Jon Huntsman—all supported a cap-and-trade approach to cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. In the years since, however, conservatives have made “cap-and-trade” a dirty word, and climate denialism is now de rigueur on the right. That means the contenders are all scrambling to wriggle out of their former enthusiasm for carbon trading—and each candidate’s method offers a revealing glimpse of his political style.

The Abject Grovel

As governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty enacted an aggressive renewable energy standard and drew up plans for his state to join a regional cap-and-trade system. He even cut a radio ad with then-Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano urging Congress to pass its own carboncapping bill. Since there’s no way to pretend that didn’t happen, Pawlenty has opted for self-flagellation. In a May GOP debate in South Carolina, after hearing that old radio spot, Pawlenty stared mournfully at the audience: “I’ve said I was wrong. It was a mistake, and I’m sorry. You’re going to have a few clunkers in your record, and we all do, and that’s one of mine. I just admit it. I don’t try to duck it, bob it, weave it, try to explain it away. I’m just telling you, I made a mistake.”

The Jargon Switcheroo

Here’s Newt Gingrich, circa 2007: “I think if you have mandatory carbon caps, combined with a trading system, much like what we did with sulfur ... frankly, it’s something I would strongly support.” But when John McCain came out with just such a proposal on the 2008 campaign trail, Newt demurred: “I think that a tax-and-regulate model is wrong, and I think it’s not going to pass.” Then, in 2009, Gingrich testified on why the House cap-and-trade bill was a bad idea: “President Obama’s budget makes clear it’s a $646 billion energy tax.” Technically, so was the policy Gingrich said he’d support. Last year, Human Events asked Gingrich if he regretted cutting an ad in 2008 with Nancy Pelosi in which they pledged to address climate change. Gingrich didn’t blink: “My point is conservatives ought to be prepared to stand on the same stage and offer a conservative solution.” Confused? He’s in favor of a solution, but when his opponents propose the exact same thing, it’s “tax-and-regulate” or an “energy tax.” Neat trick.

The Seemingly Reasonable Hedge

As governor of Utah, Jon Huntsman had a strong green record—he helped set up the Western Climate Initiative (WCI), in which several states would have joined California in a regional cap-and-trade system. In 2008, he urged the nation’s governors to come together on a climate strategy rivaling John F. Kennedy’s moon-shot vision. But now? “It hasn’t worked,” he told Time, in reference to the WCI. (It hasn’t worked because it hasn’t gotten underway yet, and Huntsman’s successor in Utah has dragged his heels.) But Huntsman maintains that he still believed in global warming—and has left himself some wiggle room. “Our economy’s in a different place than five years ago,” he told Time. Until the economy gets going, he added, “this isn’t the moment” to try cap-and-trade. Just in case he runs in 2016 and has to contort again.

The Preemptive Flip-Flop

Oddly enough, Mitt Romney was the one erstwhile moderate who saw where his party was heading on cap-and-trade. Back in 2005, Massachusetts was preparing to join a Northeastern carbon-trading system for utilities—Romney had his energy advisers working round the clock on the issue. But, at the last minute, Romney pulled out. Even his advisers were stunned. His ostensible rationale—that the carbon program would cost too much for local businesses—made no sense. The trading program would start small, and in-state utilities welcomed it. One theory was that Romney backtracked because he already had his eye on the national stage, and Midwestern coal interests weren’t happy with Massachusetts’s program. Either way, it was a slick move. Romney got out before he dug in too deep. Which probably suits him just fine—after all, he’s already got health care to explain to the base.

Bradford Plumer is the associate editor of The New Republic. This article originally ran in the June 9, 2011, issue of the magazine.

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