Newt Gingrich's style of debate was recently summed up this way by Paul Abrams of The Huffington Post (and Washington State's Apollo Alliance): "After his high-minded talk ... Newt immediately descends to the gutter, throwing out red meat to his base."
So it was expected to be today when Gingrich faced Sen. John Kerry in a debate over global warming. Yet the Kerry-Newt debate (video is up on C-Span.org, more at John Kerry's blog) may well shift the overall debate, away from the definitively answered “is global warming happening?” to “what do we do about it?”
Crafty Gingrich downplayed, but did not renounce, his global warming denial arguments. (Kerry helpfully reminded us that Newt recently said there was no evidence of global warming, just cultural anthropology,” properly calling into question Newt’s sincerity.)
But Newt clearly realizes the conservative movement can’t continue being perceived as the Flat Earth Society, and in turn, sought to move the debate towards the question of our government’s role.
He also recognized that an anti-government approach would be understood as insufficient for the challenge we face. So he sought to turn the tables, claiming he supports a “real solution” that is “radically bigger and more complex than the current proposals.”
Yet he essentially only proposed a series of tax credits for cleaner energy.
Tax credits are certainly part of the solution, but by themselves are not enough – and they’re a far cry from “radically bigger and more complex”.
Newt also derided a firm cap on carbon emissions as a “bureaucracy and litigation” strategy. Kerry quickly rejected the false frame, noting that the same claims were lobbed at sulfur dioxide caps, and were proven wrong.
Kerry rightly noted that without our government to “set a standard,” and put a price on carbon pollution, we won’t get the job done:
The major CEOs … say they need the cap set, in order to give the marketplace the certitude and the incentive, for people to put the money in, and have a long-term capital investment that’s worthwhile.
At one point, Newt argued that it has been hard for conservatives to be environmentalists because of fears it would lead to “bigger government and higher taxes.” But that seems to be a bit of projection on his part.
His focus on giant tax credits, presumably with no revenue offsets, would continue the conservative “starve the government” project, and undermine our government’s ability to respond to the people’s will.
Here's how Newt begins his website section on the environment:
America will be stronger if it develops coherent technology and market-oriented solutions to environmental conservation and energy consumption...
...It is possible to have a healthy environment and a healthy economy. It is possible to build incentives for a cleaner future. It is possible to have biodiversity and wealthy human beings on the same planet.
Practically sounds like a charter member of the Apollo Alliance.
But high-minded quickly shifts towards flat-earth territory.
The United States should support substantial research into climate science ... It is astounding to watch people blithely propose trillions of dollars in spending on a topic on which we have failed to spend modest amounts to better understand...
...Global warming may happen. On the other hand it is possible Europe will experience another ice age...
...This point is politically incorrect but the history and science of climate change is far more complex and uncertain than the politically driven mass hysteria of scientists...
Ah, the old "Ice Age" swindle. Conservatives keep pushing that line despite its thorough debunking.
Just as Abrams explained, Gingrich tries to look high-minded (science is really complicated!) while throwing out the red meat to the base ("politically incorrect" now being conservative code for "the truth that the media won't tell you, like how great things are in Iraq").
At the same time, he tries to sound like he's proposing positive solutions, by supporting "substantial research into climate science." It is very clear from his long anti-environment history that his criticisms, masked as constructive, are intended to confuse and obstruct. Meanwhile, the scientists of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, despite meddling from the White House , have erased all doubt that strong action is imperative.
No question, it is astute of Newt to recognize that a fight over the role of government is relatively better for conservatives than a fight over established science.
Thanks to his stature among conservatives, their movement may follow his lead. (Though the National Review appears unimpressed with Newt's performance.)
But as Kerry did, we can take that fight head on and win. If we do, we’ll be in an even stronger position to enact the legislation needed to solve the climate crisis.
Updated 3:45 p.m. April 10.