Pretty Much Every Republican Front-Runner Used to Support Cap and Trade

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 11 2011 10:21 AM

Pretty Much Every Republican Front-Runner Used to Support Cap and Trade

Last week, Tim Pawlenty had to sit there and take it as a 2008 ad he cut in support of capping greenhouse gas emissions. "We all have a few clunkers in our record," he said.

Lucky enough, he's right. Cap and trade, like the health care mandate, was an acceptable free market position for quite a long while. There were always critics, but it wasn't really until 2009, when environmental skeptics and groups like Americans for Prosperity went to war against it, that conservative and national opinion really turned. (The essential poll on this: In May 2009 , only a quarter of voters knew that "cap and trade" had something to do with energy.) And so most of the people considered frontrunners for 2012 have been on the record, at some point, talking up greenhouse gas caps.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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Newt Gingrich has left a long trail of comments on cap and trade, most of them from his brief 2006-2007 tour as an environmentalist who wanted, as his book was titled, "A Contract with the Earth." The most specific comments I've seen came in a February 2007 interview with PBS's Frontline.

I think if you have mandatory carbon caps combined with a trading system, much like we did with sulfur, and if you have a tax-incentive program for investing in the solutions, that there's a package there that's very, very good. And frankly, it's something I would strongly support.... If [George W. Bush] had instituted a regime that combined three things I just said -- mandatory caps, a trading system inside the caps, as we have with clean air, and a tax incentive to be able to invest in the new technology and to be able to produce the new technology -- I think we would be much better off than we are in the current situation.

And then there's this ad, cut as part of the same campaign that stung Pawlenty.

I also support cap and trade of carbon emissions. And I was disappointed that the Senate rejected a carbon counting system to measure the sources of emissions, because that would have been the first and the most important step toward implementing true cap and trade.

Mitt Romney actually has an unusual amount of cover on the issue. In 2005, he endorsed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an interstate compact that aimed to cut emissions through local cap-and-trade policies. From a Boston Globe piece that's been lost in website redesign limbo:

"This is a great thing for the Commonwealth," Romney said, his strongest endorsement of the pact to date. "We can effectively create incentives to help stimulate a sector of the economy and at the same time not kill jobs. "

But some companies are worried that the emissions agreement would send energy prices even higher and make Massachusetts less friendly to business... Romney said yesterday that he had some concerns about the agreement, known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, but he endorsed this and other clean- energy initiatives by saying they would stimulate the development of technology that Massachusetts companies could sell to other states and countries, as the emphasis on climate change grows.

"I'm convinced it is good business," Romney said. He cited analyses showing that the agreement would boost energy prices by just 1 or 2 percent.

After that, however, Romney bailed on the agreement, citing worries about how fair or unfair the caps would be. And this all happened six years ago. That puts him in better shape than Jon Huntsman , who signed on to the Western states' version of RGGI in 2007.

One of the conventional wisdoms of presidential campaigns is that governors are better candidates than senators; they've got executive experience! The downside of that experience, when it comes to an issue like this, is that governing is hard; compromises have to be made; ideas that sound good, and that advisers recommend, get tried out even if a conservative think tank says they're rotten. Even Sarah Palin created a subcabinet study group on carbon that we're going to hear about if she runs. (At the time, like most subcabinet study groups, it generated no news.) Is GOP dream candidate Chris Christie safe? Nope; New Jersey's part of RGGI, too, and only now is he talking about pulling out of it.

Gingrich's flirtation with cap and trade (and, yes, everyone on this list can say he supported a different version that wouldn't have Killed American Jobs, like the version that actually passed the House) is probably best explained as one of the many ideas he has found interesting for a while, then moved on from. A cynic might ask if he stopped talking about it because his organizations started taking in huge donations from the energy industry. But the change of heart put him in line with the new conservative orthodoxy on this issue.

Want to guess which potential Republican candidate looks ready to pass the pH test on this? Mitch Daniels. In early 2009, when the issue was ill-defined, he was already arguing against it. That's a nice arrow in the quiver the next time he's asked about the "social truce."

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.