Newt Gingrich, environmentalist.

Newt Gingrich, environmentalist.

Newt Gingrich, environmentalist.

Science, technology, and life.
Oct. 30 2007 7:43 AM

An Inconvenient Newt

Newt Gingrich, environmentalist.

Newt Gingrich. Click imgae to expand.
Newt Gingrich

"In the Hegelian model, it's not enough to be the antithesis party."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

It's Monday afternoon, and Newt Gingrich is expounding, over lunch, on his new book about saving the Earth. Moments like this remind me why I have a soft spot for Gingrich. How many other Washington big shots go around quoting Hegel? The point of the reference impresses me even more. Gingrich is criticizing his own party, the GOP, for failing to offer environmental solutions. He agrees that Democrats' ideas—"litigation and regulation," he calls them—are wrongheaded. But opposing those ideas isn't enough. He's calling on Republicans to lead what Hegel would call a "synthesis"—a movement that deploys conservative mechanisms to address an important liberal concern.

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Gingrich loves to point out that conservatism and conservation are related words. But he was never a real conservative, in the sense of preferring old things. In his early days, he promoted the quasi-oxymoronic "Conservative Opportunity Society," preaching dynamism more than constancy. Today, chatting with a small circle of reporters, his eyes sparkle as he again extols "creativity" and "innovation." He calls himself "pro-growth," "pro-freedom," and "pro-change." Not just change, but "massive," "dramatic," "radical," "fundamental," and "extraordinary" change. I can't help glancing at the gold band on his left hand. He's been wearing a ring on that finger since he was 19, but the rings, like the wives, keep changing. He's a restless man.

Restlessness has its virtues. Gingrich isn't entirely happy with his marriage to the GOP, and he isn't shy about saying so. The party has stagnated. He traces its decay to the 1980s, when the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, by his account, drifted to the left. The GOP responded by turning against them: Whatever they favored, the party would oppose. As Gingrich sees it, the party stopped thinking. Instead of striving for synthesis, it settled for a lazy antithesis. Now he's trying to shake it up. He was on several conservative talk shows this morning, spreading the gospel of stewardship. At first, he says, the hosts and listeners feared he might be fronting for bigger government and higher taxes. Once he dispelled that fear, they were all ears.

The problem with regulation and taxes, he argues, is that they drive business overseas. Our auto emissions standards shift car sales to foreign manufacturers. European carbon caps push industries to Africa. But Gingrich is cursed with a brain that can see the big picture. He recognizes that overfishing, for example, requires collective action, since one or two countries can ruin the ocean for everyone. We have to think of the whole planet, he observes. Which raises the question: If undercutting by other nations foils unilateral regulation, isn't multilateral regulation the answer? Business can't flee emissions caps in one country if the same caps apply elsewhere. To this question, Gingrich clarifies that he's not against international remedies, as long as they're "functional."

Nor is he averse to government spending and intervention in markets. He just wants the spending and intervention to take the form of incentives. Instead of giving $1 billion to a federal agency to deal with a problem, he'd offer the money as a prize to the first company that solves it. As the conversation proceeds, Gingrich throws money at one challenge after another. Hydrogen fuel? Dangle a 10-figure prize. Nuclear waste? A 10 percent tax break to any state that accepts it. Endangered species? Annual bonuses to countries that keep them alive. Math and science education? Pay poor kids for taking the classes and earning a B average. Even FDR's colossal outlays fit Gingrich's philosophy. "The entire New Deal was based on incentives," he says.

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How does Gingrich square all this spending with limited government? To begin with, he reasons, it isn't much money. Second, the government doesn't administer solutions; it dangles the money and lets industry find the best way. Third, it doesn't count as spending if it comes off the revenue side of the ledger. We're not paying you to take nuclear waste; we're just cutting your taxes. Gingrich swears industry will be more inspired to solve the hydrogen problem by if we offer $1 billion tax-free than if we offer $1.8 billion subject to taxes. Why? People hate taxes, he says. Getting money tax-free just "feels better."

Gingrich is no dummy. He sees the irony of his position. At one point, he jokes that he's a Jeffersonian: "I would never buy more than half a continent at a time." Even the title of his book—A Contract with the Earth—feels strained to the point of silliness. You can't make a contract with a planet, for crying out loud. Conservation is a covenant, not a contract; and the planet is its object, not a consenting party. But if Republicans need the language of "contracts" and "incentives" to spin themselves into protecting the environment, let 'em have it.

My chief worry about A Contract with the Earth is that it'll become the green version of Gingrich's Contract with America—a partisan tool dressed up as a public service. Even as he faults his party, Gingrich can't resist analyzing polls, taking digs at Jane Fonda, and spinning the public-private debate as a choice between "entrepreneurs" and "bureaucrats." It's hard to tell whether he worries more about the environment or about his calculation that environmentally obtuse Republican candidates get "killed in the suburbs." American politicians who propose to regulate pollution may find themselves undercut not by Chinese industrial competitors, but by domestic political competitors, led by Gingrich. He says he'd like the Democrats to nominate a presidential candidate who supports carbon credits, since that would make the nominee easier to beat. It's always been this way with Gingrich: half opportunity, half opportunism.

I'll take my chances. Like Al Gore, Gingrich is staying out of the presidential race. Like Gore, he's addressing a threat that transcends all others. As we sit down to lunch, I joke that he and Gore are getting the same treatment: Everybody thinks their efforts to save the planet are a ploy to attain the more important objective of running for president. Gingrich laughs at the smallness of the idea. He has bigger ambitions, I hope.