John DingellLast week, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chair of the Energy & Commerce Committee, dropped this bomb (sub. rqd.):

My own judgment is that we are going to have to adopt a cap-and-trade system and some form of carbon emission fee to achieve the reductions we need.

Lest you missed it, “carbon emission fee” is clever poli-speak for carbon tax.

Meanwhile, the liberal grassroots group MoveOn has launched a full frontal assault on Dingell, with radio ads calling him a "Dingellsaurus." They’re joined by several other groups, including Greenpeace, which has called for Dingell’s ouster as chair of the E&C Committee. The focus of the attacks is Dingell’s continued opposition to boosting CAFE standards.

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This makes me very nervous. If Dingell comes up with a bill that is seriously and thoughtfully designed to make steep cuts in GHG emissions, and it includes both a cap-and-trade program and a carbon fee, that will be vastly more consequential than anything happening around CAFE.

I don’t think people quite appreciate what Dingell’s done here. He’s the first member of Congress with any power or seniority to even mention a carbon tax, much less endorse it. He’s putting up a trial balloon, nudging the Overton Window. It’s an opportunity for the rest of us to run with it — to take something that’s suddenly got a toehold in the realm of political possibility and pound it home.

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"Do you, like House Energy Committee chair John Dingell, support a carbon tax?" Kind of changes the tenor of the question, doesn’t it?

Dingell needs political cover on this. A carbon tax is a huge deal, a game-changer, and if it’s taking root, even tenuously, it needs to be nurtured.

In contrast, CAFE is — all due respect to the political warriors who have spent decades doggedly pursuing the issue — something of a sideshow. It’s a symbolic fight. The Senate just passed, with much fanfare, a bill that would set CAFE at 35mpg by 2020. With fully electric cars on the road today, and plug-in hybrids that get 100mpg just around the corner, does anyone think 35mpg won’t be anachronistic by 2020? CAFE worked incredibly well when it was first passed, but by now it is trailing, not pushing, fuel efficiency technology.

My point: Dingell is a prideful man. An insulting attack from the left right now could get his dander up. He’s no spring chicken — he knows how to win a political knife fight. He can have it with greens, or he can have it with opponents of carbon caps. I’d much rather have him on our side.

IMO, the smarter play on MoveOn’s part would have been to blast its three million members with the happy news: The fight for a carbon tax now has a key congressional ally! Tie Dingell to his words, and signal to every other member of Congress that a carbon tax is now a live issue, not a theoretical one.

Anyway, I just hope this doesn’t turn into yet another circular firing squad among progressives, when we all need to be pulling in the same direction: cutting carbon emissions. That’s the ultimate goal, right?