Newt Gingrich’s Goodbye As GOP’s Thought Leader

Mitt Romney needs not to worry that Newt Gingrich will cut a figure at odds with the image of the GOP’s presidential nominee, at least on energy and environmental policy.  They both offer careers characterized by moments of moderation overtaken by political expediency, adopting positions both outdated and repudiated as they veered to the far right.  For an America looking for someone who will ignite an economy that will not only create sustainable jobs but will rely on innovation and clean sources of energy to do it, Gingrich is a vivid reminder how wrong this choice can be. 

As a member of Congress, Gingrich hit his all time high on environmental issues in 1993 when he scored 30% according to the League of Conservation Voters.  This peak was reached largely based on his support for several wildlife conservation measures, as befitting a man who once fancied a job as a zoo director, but his score the next year was a zero – a signal of things to come.  What he really became famous for was a scorched earth approach to politics that catapulted the Republicans into control of the U.S. House in 1995 for the first time in 40 years and landed him in the Speakers chair.  The main missile launched in this assault was Gingrich’s brainchild, the Contract with America, which included an unprecedented attack on health, safety and environmental protections in the U.S., all under the name of “regulatory reform.”

The centerpiece of the regulatory reform in the Contract was a proposal that would have given big companies that polluted air, water or food supplies or created hazardous workplaces or consumer products an immense shield from federal agencies charged with protecting the public (such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) by tangling them up with costly red tape and endless litigation.   The bill (H.R. 9) had the Orwellian title, “The Job Creation and Wage Enhancement Act,” but actually it was the polluter’s holiday and lawyer’s full employment act.   After it passed the House, Bob Dole picked up the proposal and tried to run it through the Senate on his way to a run for the White House.  But the proposal was so extreme it met stiff bipartisan opposition and was eventually blocked in the Senate despite Dole’s role as Majority Leader. 

This pro-polluter provision at the heart of the Contract with America was the granddaddy of the Tea Party’s current plan to turn back the clock on a range of public protections, and should be understood as what is meant by much of the coded language on regulations in candidate stump speeches and the Republican platform.   Letting companies decide just how much they want to reduce their own pollution was a bad idea in the 1990s and it’s a bad idea now.  Although Gingrich is long gone from the House, his heritage can been seen in such extreme proposals as the Red Tape Reduction and Small Business Job Creation Act (H.R. 4078), which includes the notorious REINS Act, that would in effect prevent or delay most federal regulation regardless of merit. 

Still we don’t need much of a decoder ring to see just how far Gingrich has gone off to the right on environmental safeguards when we consider his proposal to replace the Environmental Protection Agency with a new Environmental Solutions Agency.  This incredible proposal would have provided a solution for environmental problems in the same way that abolishing colleges would solve the problem of paying for higher education.  It essentially would have wiped out the means of dealing with such basic needs as reducing air and water pollution by getting rid of an agency wildly popular with the public.  This new creation would have had limited authority, focusing on research and business-friendly partnerships, and would have promoted “clean” coal and a more loosely regulated nuclear power.  All this plus no environmental degradation, he promised, which is more than far-fetched given the lack of accountability for polluters that would have resulted.      

If Gingrich is most famous for the Contract with America, he may be most infamous for his reversal on climate change.  At the same time that Romney as governor of Massachusetts was being for action on climate change before he was against it, Gingrich was coming around to the view that climate change was a serious problem that required action and supported limits on carbon pollution and clean energy policies to help address it.  This period of following the facts on the subject eventually led to the memorable moment in 2008 when Gingrich took a seat on the climate couch with Nancy Pelosi

Later he regretted this reasonable moment, but since the science hadn’t change on climate it is hard to believe that anything other than politics was behind his reversal on the issue.  That reversal became most obvious the next year when in the wake of public concern about higher gasoline prices Gingrich responded by publishing “Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less,” a book short on real solutions to America’s future energy needs but one long on pandering to the oil industry and economic anxiety. 

Let’s note but leave aside what a canard the book was because the U.S. lacks the oil reserves to drill our way to energy sufficiency while more fuel efficient cars as proposed by the Obama administration will save consumers much more money.  What the position in the book really did was help Gingrich in his attempt to reposition himself within a party that was increasingly coming under pressure by the fossil fuel industry and eventually the Tea Party to abandon the view that the government should play a role in encouraging innovative, clean and domestic alternatives to our oil dependence.  Instead of boldly charting a new energy path for America’s future as a presidential candidate, his proposed energy policies continued this commitment to the old-time fossil energy policies of the past.

So as Gingrich takes his long goodbye into night as a party leader at this convention, the GOP should feel his intellectual legacy of dropping science in favor of politics when pressured by the far right is now safely passed to the Romney ticket.   Yet, Gingrich left a clear imprint on the thinking of the current Republican Party, which bodes ill for those looking for new directions for the U.S. energy economy.  The GOP and the menu of useful energy choices available to the American people are the lesser for it.

Newt’s 30-Minute Energy Infomercial: 29 minutes Too Long

On Sunday, GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich released a video of himself talking about energy policy. Clocking in at 28 minutes and 59 seconds, I can tell you that the video lasts about 28 minutes and 56 seconds too long. That’s because the entire message can be summed up in just three words:

“Drill, baby, drill.”

I suppose Newt’s not known for being concise. Instead, Newt spent nearly 30 minutes detailing why America needs ever more oil, ever more gas, and ever more drilling. But, Newt willfully ignores the most important piece of the energy puzzle: climate change.

As one of my friends put it, “Newt sounds like a drunken sailor who cannot pass up one more slug after last call. Drilling-here and drilling-there will only perpetuate our oil addiction and delay our transition to a green and prosperous economy fueled by renewable sources of energy. And no café standards? What does he drive -– a model T? America has seen his backward vision for America and we rejected it two decades ago.”

Newt wraps up his pro-drilling lecture by saying, “And I think with that energy future, we’re going to have a better quality of life, a better economy, better national security, and take a big step toward balancing the federal budget.”

I share those goals. But, climate change threatens those objectives. Quality of life will be threatened by risk of illness and death from extreme heat. By 2100, just a handful of global warming impacts could cost the U.S. economy $1.9 trillion annually. The Pentagon knows that climate change is a threat multiplier that will harm our national security and contribute to instability across the globe.

We can aim to have it all, but not without addressing climate change.

Newt and I do agree on another thing. Throughout his feature film, Newt alludes to American innovation, science and technology as the tools to get to a dramatically different energy future. He’s right. But we need to apply that innovation and entrepreneurship to developing and scaling new clean energy technologies, not just to digging deeper for dead dinosaurs.

So, save yourself 30 minutes. Don’t watch the video. Instead, spend those 30 minutes soaking up the beautiful and unusually warm winter weather we’re experiencing. And contemplate the less fun consequences of the unchecked warming that “drill, baby, drill” will bring.

Gingrich and Romney Offer the Same Tired Energy Policies

Newt Gingrich trounced Mitt Romney in South Carolina, ensuring that the race for the GOP nomination will likely continue for weeks to come. The Republican establishment may have settled on Romney, but voters keep throwing their support behind the anti-Romney — whichever candidate of the moment sounds as different from the supposedly “moderate” Massachusetts governor as possible.

Right now, Gingrich is the one generating all the passion. But if one goes by their campaign statements, Gingrich differs from Romney more in style (and personal life) than in substance. Gingrich has more spit and fire in him, but he and Romney share many views, including their similarly outdated approach to energy development.

We’ve heard the same tired ideas during the primaries, and we will hear them again in the Republican response to the State of the Union Address on Tuesday night: candidates offer plenty of attacks on Obama, but no new vision for America’s energy future.

Gingrich may be the man who wrote the book, Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less: A Handbook for Solving Our Energy Crisis, but Romney is just as eager to rely on the same fossil fuels we’ve been using for the past 100 years. Romney’s energy blueprint, included in his “Believe in America” economic plan, calls for flinging open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy companies, sinking wells into the deepwater, and expanding fracking in the Marcellus Shale, despite a long list of environmental and public health concerns (not to mention small earthquakes).

Neither Romney nor Gingrich has a fresh plan for an energy future built on innovation and cutting-edge technology. Neither one talks about how better-performing cars are putting 150,000 Americans to work right now and helping slash our oil addiction at the same time. Neither one trumpets the fact that American engineers are already making breakthroughs in the next generation of solar technology. And neither one of them urges America to lead what has been estimated as the $243 billion global clean energy market.

Instead, both Romney and Gingrich seem to view renewable technologies as a wasteful distraction. This despite the fact that the Department of Defense—the nation’s largest consumer of energy—has pledged to get 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025 because of national security concerns.

The candidates like to demagogue about energy independence, but they have no plan to achieve it besides doing more of the same—an approach that hasn’t worked so far. We saw it in Gingrich’s acceptance speech in South Carolina. “I want America to become so energy independent that no American president ever again bows to a Saudi king.” That is a fine aspiration, but instead of encouraging Detroit to build more fuel-efficient engines or farmers to grow sustainable biofuels, he called for expanding offshore drilling and approving the Keystone XL pipeline.

When your home has 1.6 percent of the globe’s proven oil reserves and you consume 26 percent of the world’s supply, there is a limit to how much you can influence supply. That’s not politics; it’s geology.

And building a pipeline from a friendly ally won’t help much when the pipeline operators routinely say in the Canadian press that a primary goal of Keystone XL is to access Asian markets. The same operators have refused in Congressional testimony to commit to selling the majority of their oil to the United States. Instead, they are rerouting it out of the Midwest and into the “Foreign Trade Zone” in Port Arthur, Texas, where companies get incentives to export from of the United States.

Approving a pipeline to help dirty tar sands oil get to Asia is not a long-term plan for America’s energy system. Opening more ocean waters to drilling won’t position us to lead the next generation of energy breakthroughs. But that doesn’t stop Gingrich and Romney from singing the same old song again and again.

President Obama recognizes that America’s energy leadership will be built on clean technologies. Last week he kicked off his presidential campaign advertising with an ad devoted to the economic power of clean energy. I expect he will highlight it again in the State of the Union.

Here is how I expect the GOP candidates to respond: They will criticize Obama’s clean energy programs and sprinkle in fossil fuel buzzwords like Keystone and drilling. But their complaints can’t cover the fact that they have no fresh ideas, no innovation, and no groundbreaking vision for America’s energy future.

President Obama Doubles Down on Clean Energy

I just finished watching the GOP primary debate in South Carolina. It was a pretty entertaining two hours which kicked off with Newt Gingrich admonishing CNN for daring ask a question about his personal question (um, didn’t he try to impeach a President over something personal?) and ended with all candidates agreeing that any of them would be better then the guy in office now. But what I found most interesting was not what they talked about – but what was missing. Where was energy?

Governor Romney made one attempt to talk energy when trying to deflect criticism for not releasing his taxes but besides that, there wasn’t a lot of talk about what will be a central part of our future.

President Obama demonstrated bold leadership this week when he rejected the Keystone XL pipeline. Some are trying to marginalize the Keystone decision by saying Obama made it to please wacko environmentalists. Newt Gingrich went so far as to say, “President Obama has made it clear once again that he is committed to Saul Alinksy radicalism at the expense of working Americans.”

The trouble is that the people lined up against the pipeline don’t fit into a radical box. Republican lawmakers in Nebraska, ranchers and farmers from the Heartland, security hawks in the Armed Forces, and religious leaders from across the country don’t count themselves among the extreme left. They are simply Americans who don’t think a dirty pipeline to export Canadian oil to Asia markets is in our national interest.

GOP leaders have also tried to turn the Keystone decision into a jobs issue, but they can’t even agree on the numbers. One industry-funded study being quoted was so far-reaching that it includes new jobs for dancers and choreographers in its tally. Here’s the number that matters most: the company behind the pipeline, TransCanada, said in sworn testimony the project will only generate “hundreds” of permanent jobs.

Since the jobs numbers turned out to be thin, some lawmakers have tried to claim the pipeline would lower gas prices. But by diverting Canadian oil that would otherwise go to the Midwest, TransCanada has admitted the pipeline would increase the price Americans pay for Canadian oil by $3.9 billion. The other interesting thing is that the price of gas – when DOWN after the Keystone XL pipeline was rejected this week.

Next GOP leaders tried to position the Keystone decision as a sign he can’t stand up to his base. But even some pipeline supporters view Obama’s choice as a matter of fair play. They dislike that Republicans in Congress wanted Obama to ignore the extensive review process required by law for major infrastructure projects and approve a pipeline whose route hasn’t yet been confirmed—all within 60 days.

Governor Schweitzer told MSNBC, “As chief executive of Montana, if they ask me to approve of a pipeline with an incomplete application, I would have to reject it and I am the biggest proponent of this pipeline in America. These jokers in Congress that are trying to force the president to approve an incomplete application are just making mischief.”

What has impressed me most was that even as the Republican leaders were trying every argument they could, Obama doubled down. The same day he announced the Keystone decision he released his first 2012 campaign ad, and the topic was clean energy. It lays out the administration’s energy achievements, but it also positions clean energy as the path to the future.

In the end, that’s why Republicans and Democrats are fighting to win the energy messaging war in this race. They know energy is represents the trifecta of campaign-friendly values: patriotism, independence, and jobs.

The current Republican field’s collective vision for energy adds the value of conservatism — more of the same fossil fuels we have used for the past 100 years. Obama’s vision for energy layers on the values of ingenuity, innovation, leadership, and dominance in global markets. The dirty Keystone XL pipeline doesn’t have a place in the vision, and by rejecting, Obama has not only confirmed his clean energy leadership, but he has laid claim to powerful American values.

Iowa: Example of a Country Deeply Divided

Mitt Romney squeezed by Rick Santorum to become the winner of the Iowa caucuses by just eight votes. Romney’s inability to score a resounding victory reveals the persistent divide within the Republican Party. Santorum has emerged as the conservative contender of the moment, and Romney continues to be the frontrunner people may settle for but no one really loves.

Ron Paul won a sizeable chunk of voters: 21.4 percent to Romney’s 24.6 percent and Santorum’s 24.5 percent. Paul’s Libertarian views appealed to the far-right, and he could probably win a few of other conservative states, but at the end of the day, he would have a tough time carrying the nation.

The same is true for Santorum, but voters looking for a leader with a stronger conservative spine than Romney have given him his moment in the sun.

While environmental issues did not figure prominently in the Iowa race, Santorum is using his media spotlight to attack attack the Environmental Protection Agency’s new standards to reduce mercury and other dangerous pollution from power plants. Mercury is a neurotoxin that damages the developing brains of children and fetuses, causing developing delays and lowering IQ.

Santorum positions himself as a champion of families and the unborn, but his opposition to mercury limits shows he is more pro-polluter than pro-healthy-life. He tied to bash the science behind the new standards, but I have to wonder when he had time to read the EPA’s 510-page analysis of the rule—on the campaign bus?

Thanks to his showing in Iowa, Santorum has lived to fight another day. He can join other GOP candidates in putting polluters’ interests above the health of ordinary Americans.

When the caucuses began on Tuesday, every candidate but Romney was on life support. Now we know who will stay plugged into donors, party backing, and media attention and who will be taken off the breathing machines.

Conventional wisdom says there are only three tickets out of Iowa; candidates who finish fourth or below tend to park their campaign buses for good. By early Wednesday morning, Rick Perry said he was returning home to Texas instead of traveling on to South Carolina. Later the same day, Michele Bachmann, who received just 5 percent of the votes in Iowa, announced that she was parking her Presidential bus.

Jon Huntsman—the only candidate in the race who still acknowledges the threat of climate change—came in dead last. He hasn’t given up the primary, however, since he made an early choice not to campaign in Iowa but to focus on more moderate New Hampshire votes instead.

Newt Gingrich came in fourth place, with 13.3 percent of votes. Typically that would put him below the bar for fund raisers, but Gingrich doesn’t seem to depend on money. He managed to become a contender based on earned media alone thanks to his loud voice and outsized opinions. He will no doubt continue making appearances on major outlets for weeks to come – possibly making himself a spoiler to Romney since the only think Gingrich seems to want more then being President is defeating Romney.

But for not the focus shifts to New Hampshire, which has become Romney’s race to lose.