Last Sunday, Rep. John Dingell appeared on the C-SPAN show Newsmakers for a 30-min. interview (transcript here; video accessible via the website), and caused an enormous ruckus with this:

SWAIN: Mr. Chairman, I want to go back to your statement that the American people want action [on climate change]. Does that also correlate with the American people being willing to pay higher prices, because of energy legislation?

DINGELL: I sincerely doubt that the American people are willing to pay what this is really going to cost them.

I will be introducing in the next little bit a carbon tax bill, just to sort of see how people really feel about this. And it will impose, for example, on gasoline a 50 cent tax. It also will place a very substantial tax on CO2 emissions, amounting to a double-digit tax on tons of CO2 emitted.

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And I think, when you see the criticism I get, you’ll understand that you will be getting the answer to your question.

The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Associated Press all played the comments the same way: Dingell is offering the bill purely to show that it will fail.

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This interpretation of Dingell’s intentions was adopted and taken farther by bloggers — see Bill Scher, John Laumer, Patrick Kennedy, Sam Abuelsamid, FishOutofWater at dKos, TerraPass’s Adam Stein, Dan Drezner, conservative economist and carbon tax proponent Greg Mankiw, Leonardo at ToThePeople, and Gadfly at Watching Those We Chose — who almost uniformly ascribed Dingell’s move to a dastardly desire to thwart CAFE standards or, in the more overheated versions, to thwart climate legislation altogether.

To boot, I had several people email me to claim that my limited defense of Dingell was naive and misguided. "Look, we told you he’s evil!"

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Let’s slow down and think about this a bit, shall we?

Try, if you can, to look at this from Dingell’s perspective: he’s convinced global warming is a problem. He’s been charged with crafting legislation to tackle the issue, and he takes his responsibility very seriously. He’s jealous of his prerogative as a committee chair. He’s been battered around by conservatives (who say there’s “no energy” in the energy bill), and then by progressives and by the head of his own caucus for failing to go far enough in his legislative proposals.

So this is what he thinks: "Look, you want me to do something serious about global warming? Fine. I’ll propose a cap-and-trade system accompanied by a carbon tax, since that’s what will do the job. You’ll quickly see that the American people aren’t prepared to pay what it will cost to do this, the proposal will disappear, and I’ll get back to my job, i.e., creating a bill that can get bipartisan support and pass the House."

In short, he’s calling Pelosi’s bluff, and ours. He’s going to find out if there is support, in Congress and among the public, for the high upfront costs that will face any serious climate legislation. That’s why I think this exchange was much more revealing:

SWAIN: Where does the leadership come from, then, if, in fact, global warming is a problem you think must be fixed, policy has to change, and it will in fact cost more, but the American public isn’t willing to pay the price?

DINGELL: That’s a very nice question, isn’t it. [long pause]

SWAIN: You have no answer?

DINGELL: You ask, where does the leadership come from? I’m going to try and give it.

I’m hoping that I will be supported by the leadership in the House and the Senate. I’m hoping that I will be supported by the White House. I’m hoping that the American people will endorse the idea.

We’ll find out whether the American people – and whether their leaders here in Washington and elsewhere around the country – are willing to support what they have to do to really address the problem.

In other words: put up or shut up. If you’re going to push me on this bill, I’ll give you what you want. It’s up to you now to run with it. Good luck.

This is a classic Dingell maneuver, pretty brassy, but I guess I just don’t see how it’s malign. If he was pushing a bill that only had a tax in it, you could say he was foregrounding costs and hiding benefits, but he’s not. Earlier in the interview, he listed all the other stuff that was in the bill as currently constituted:

Residential appliance efficiency. Everything from clothes washers, dryers, dishwashers, dehumidifiers, residential boilers will be covered, and a lot of other things, including refrigerators and freezers. This will be mandated — something which has been avoided by every administration since we passed the first legislation back in the 1970s. Lighting efficiency, which will impose mandatory targets on future lighting efficiency, so as to save a tremendous amount of energy that is wasted now in inefficient lighting. Beyond that, building efficiency. It encourages stronger building codes, which is something that will save a large part of perhaps the 25 percent of our energy we use in housing, and houses and buildings and so forth.

In addition to that, we’re going to require that we move towards a smart grid, a grid which uses our electric current generated in the most efficient way — something which is extremely important. A requirement for the federal agencies to reduce electric consumption by one percent for 10 years. And a modernization commission to study how the process is going and what more has to be done in concert with EPA, which will make a similar study.

Then we will address the problem of loan guarantees, which are not moving forward as they should, to encourage the needed investment in new kinds of fuels and new technologies.

Last of all, we will have active work on the next generation of batteries, something which we desperately need, if we are, for example, to move towards hybrid cars and toward fuel-efficient cars, or plug-in electric and hybrid cars.

And of course, renewable fuels infrastructure. We have tremendous capability to produce new kinds of fuels and renewable fuels for automobiles and other things. But we haven’t got any infrastructure to deliver it. This will be encouraged by the bill.

And last of all, there will be enhancement of the energy efficiency, rather, the energy information service, so that we can begin to understand what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, what more we have to do, and how we should do things differently.

All that stuff kicks ass, and it will all save consumers money.

You might also criticize Dingell for not including any kind of regressivity amelioration in his climate tax proposal — something like a payroll tax reduction — but does anyone know it isn’t in there? As far as I know, it could be.

All this said, of course Dingell’s not going to go out an martyr himself trying to get a carbon tax passed. It’s not his passion; it was never his issue.

But he’s giving us what we want.

He thinks — and says openly — that it will bite us in the ass. But if the carbon tax goes down in flames, and takes climate legislation along with it, that’s not Dingell’s fault, it’s our fault, for not being able to muster the public and political support needed to pass serious, effective climate legislation.

Dingell’s a crusty old fart, yeah, and kind of a bastard, but he’s a damn good legislator. He’s trying, in effect, to deflect the fire coming at him from the left. Purely from a pragmatic POV, it’s smart. It’s also our chance to keep the carbon tax alive — to show that the American people are willing to pay some money upfront. If that effort fails, it’s because of forces far larger than Dingell.