Why Al Gore should pipe down about a carbon tax
I like Al Gore. I voted for the guy twice: once for vice president, once for president. (He won the popular vote both times.)
I also understand that there’s value in having an organized voice calling for action from the margins of the political debate. Conservatives have been spectacular at this tactic: staking out a position so far to the right on issues that politicians end up moving to the right simply because it’s now the middle. It’s like haggling — you don’t start negotiating from your bottom line.
But I don’t really understand the point of Gore’s call for President Obama to “immediately begin pushing for a carbon tax in negotiations over the ‘fiscal cliff’ budget crisis.”
“I think all who look at these circumstances should agree that president Obama does have a mandate, should he choose to use it, to act boldly to solve the climate crisis, to begin solving it,” Gore says.
Raise your hand if you think this will do the trick.
There’s no question that there’s value in a carbon tax. That’s not my gripe. My gripe — or, I suppose, confusion — is on the politics here.
It is possible that Congress could enact a carbon tax. I don’t think it’s likely, but it’s possible.
The sticking points are these:
- Opposition from House Republicans.
And it is unclear to me how Al Gore asking Barack Obama to advocate for a carbon tax overcomes those sticking points.
As much as I hate to admit that David Brooks had a decent point — David Brooks had a decent point. Last month, Brooks wrote about the failure of climate change legislation, putting the blame heavily at Gore’s feet.
Al Gore released his movie “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006. The global warming issue became associated with the highly partisan former vice president. Gore mobilized liberals, but, once he became the global warming spokesman, no Republican could stand shoulder to shoulder with him and survive. Any slim chance of building a bipartisan national consensus was gone.
It’s silly, of course, to suggest that because Al Gore stepped into the climate change discussion the entire enterprise collapsed. It is not, however, silly to suggest that Al Gore stepping into a nascent, tricky carbon tax debate is not helpful politically.
The White House has repeatedly said that it doesn’t plan to push for a carbon tax but that it would “work with Republicans on [the] issue” if there was bipartisan consensus. This is a much softer position than the president took on healthcare reform. At the outset of the debate and tumult on that issue, the president let Congress lead in hopes of building bipartisan consensus — but he was always a vocal advocate for the bill.
Without the White House pushing on the carbon tax, the discussion has been more organic, gauzy, and haphazard. Various pundits have weighed in. Google searches for the term have spiked. Even the conservative American Enterprise Institute held a discussion of the idea yesterday, another resonant strike of the drumbeat.
Into this delicate, not-yet-stew of ingredients lumbers Al Gore. Al Gore, who was last heard from when he publicly announced that Obama would win Florida on election night, reminding everyone in America of why he isn’t the person that Obama replaced in the White House in 2008. Al Gore steps in and loudly suggests that this is an issue too important for the president to stay quiet. Which it is, but: shhhhh.
Gore introducing himself into the conversation makes it harder for Obama to act, not easier. For Obama to seize Gore’s invitation and advocate a carbon tax would inflame partisan opposition in the House at a moment when it’s clear that’s not to anyone’s benefit. For Obama to take any action on climate change — which he again today reiterated isn’t a primary concern — he needs to make that action as palatable to Republicans as possible. GOP representatives would have to buck entrenched opposition from right-wing media and vocal climate opponents to vote in favor of even tepid climate action over the short term. Having it be a pet, vocal cause of President Obama makes that hard. Having it be a pet, vocal cause of Gore makes it even harder.
Here’s what could help: if Gore called for a massive, sweeping reduction in carbon emissions. Gore could step into the space at far left end of the argument. He has the bullhorn with which to be heard and it would allow Obama to tack to the then-moderate-seeming position of a carbon tax. Gore could actually seize upon his status as the face of the left’s radical environmentalism and create space for the president to move on the issue. But Gore prides himself on his matter-of-factness, a bulwark against The Assault on Reason. So instead he says what he wants Obama to do, and makes it much harder for Obama to actually do it — even if he wanted to.
Earlier this year, Vice President Biden shifted the course of gay marriage in America by (accidentally!) forcing the president’s hand on acceptance. Clearly, Gore would like to do the same on climate. But he’s not vice president anymore, just a not-very-popular climate activist. His role must obviously be different.
Or it should be obvious, anyway.