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WILLIAM TUCKER: Where Romney Might Have Won on Energy

By William Tucker

Three weeks before the election I submitted a story to my journalistic home, The American Spectator, arguing that Mitt Romney should support a carbon tax.  I argued that it would solidify his support with the professional elites in Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio that were concerned about the economy but put off by the social conservatism of the Republican Party. 

My editor, whom I dearly love and have worked with for twenty-five years, turned it down.  It was the first time this has ever happened.  “It would mean Romney was committing political suicide,” he argued, and he was probably right.  At that point in the campaign, Romney was far too committed to coal.  Proposing a carbon tax would have only reignited charges that he changes his views on important issues and tacks his opinions toward political expediency.

Yet when Hurricane Sandy hit, the Republican campaign was caught flat-footed.  The public took note that such a severe storm had never occurred on the East coast within memory and that it must be evidence of global warming.  This is not an unreasonable conclusion, despite what the conservative think tanks may howl.  There’s a very simple case to be made that as ocean temperatures heat up – which they are –the strength and duration of tropical storms will increase.  It can’t be proved for one specific instance, but as a general rule it seems highly plausible.  As Steward Brand likes to say, “The more you talk with the radiation scientists, the less you worry about nuclear energy.  The more you talk with the climate scientists, the more you worry about global warming.”

And so the hurricane seems to have been a deciding factor in the election.  Romney was ahead by as much as 7 points in the Gallup poll the week before the election.  But when Hurricane Sandy hit, his momentum visibly slowed.  Many Republicans have attributed this to President Obama’s quick visit to New Jersey         – and have even criticized Governor Chris Christie for providing the President with photo ops.  But the far more likely reason is that a significant portion of the electorate is concerned about climate change and found the Romney-Ryan team’s casual dismissal of the issue and full-fledged embrace of coal to be a significant factor.  A CBS exit poll found 26 percent of voters called “Obama’s Hurricane response” to be “an important factor” in voting for the President and 15 percent found it the most important factor. 

The dilemma shows the Republicans have dug for themselves by failing to think through the issue of climate change and nuclear energy.  Romney energy advisor was a 32-year-old former Senate staffer named Rebecca Rosen who consulted the energy industry and decided coal was the way to go.  As President Obama came down hard on coal through EPA regulation, there were plenty of votes to be harvested in coal country.  Many of these were in Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, all critical states.

But there are only so many members of the United Mine Workers and many of these vote union anyway.  A much larger constituency was the suburban middle-class professionals in all these states who are the true swing voters.  These people are highly concerned about the economy but also put off by the Republican emphasis on social issues – particularly when Midwestern Senate candidates start telling women that if they are impregnated by a rapist, it must be God’s will.  These people were highly sensitive to the climate issue.  Romney took a big risk by ignoring their concerns and concentrating on the coal vote.  When Hurricane Sandy struck, he lost the bet. 

A carbon tax would have offered a middle ground.  It would handicap coal but in a way that could be reasonably justified on the grounds of coal’s larger emissions of all kinds of pollutions.  (Some of the oldest plants were built in the 1920s and have never been outfitted with anti-pollution equipment.)  The tax has recently been embraced by some prominent Republicans, including former Secretary of the Treasury George Schultz, one of the smartest men ever to work in Washington.  Just as important, the tax would have finally acknowledged the crucial advantage of nuclear energy – its lack of any carbon emissions.  If West Virginians had been offered the option of construction jobs in building new nuclear reactors, it would have reduced some of the tensions of reducing coal production.

The biggest advantage for Romney would have been taking one of President Obama’s primary issues – a strategy for cutting carbon emissions – and showing he could do it much more efficiently.  The President wasted enormous political capital trying to push a highly complex and dubious cap-and-trade system through Congress.  Cap-and-trade has never worked on such a large scale and is subject to all kinds of exemptions and manipulations, such as earning “carbon credits” by closing down jerrybuilt pollution plants in China.  The carbon tax is a much cleaner alternative.  It is hard to evade, easier to administer and – perhaps most important – produces revenue that could be used to reduce other taxes.  It could have been offered as part of overall tax reform, which would have enhanced Romney’s reputation even more as a person who could get things done.

It appears now that President Obama may propose a carbon tax in his second term.  This will probably be offered as part of a plan to raise taxes, however, rather than an effort to broaden the base and lower tax rates.  Conservatives such as Kenneth Greene at the Heritage Foundation who once endorsed a carbon tax have now backed away because they fear it will just become another means of expanding the government.  House Republicans are likely to dig in their heels against the President’s proposal and we will be back to the same old stalemate. 

Of course it’s easy enough to write all this in a column.  It’s much tougher to present it to the public in the midst of an intense Presidential campaign.  It would have been highly risky for Romney to embrace a carbon tax, particularly considering the likely reaction of his base voters.  Still, there was an opportunity there both for the candidate and for the public at large.  At this point, it looks like this opportunity is lost.