I attended Newt Gingrich's global warming "dialogue" with John Kerry this morning and what ended up striking me most was not the debate over the climate change issue itself, but the fact that it provided a window into Gingrich's refashioned brand of conservatism. Because Gingrich is one of the most thoughtful Republicans around, often ahead of his time, it's worthwhile to reflect on what some of his statements suggest about the direction of the Republican Party. What became clear to me very early on in the discussion between two prominent figures from both sides of the political spectrum was that I was not watching a debate about small government vs. big government, but a squabble over how to effectively wield the power of government to prod private enterprise into behaving the way politicians and other experts deem appropriate.
Rather than debate Kerry on the science of global warming, Gingrich put that issue to the side, acknowledging that the threat is urgent enough to warrant a serious discussion about solutions to the carbon emissions problem. He suggested that the government offer tax credits for the market to develop new technologies, and prizes for the invention of new technologies such as a hydrogen car. Kerry said that he also supported the market, but argued that because the problem was so urgent, we can't just depend on voluntarism to get the job done–government must set carbon standards, forcing industry to figure out ways to innovate to meet those standards. He compared it to the limitations on sulfur dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act of 1990, which Gingrich supported. Newt responded that the problem with what he dubbed the "regulatory-litigation regime" is that it would create an entirely new bureaucracy, a flood of lobbyists for different industries seeking variances, and it wouldn't solve the problem as rapidly as an incentive-based system that created new technologies. Furthermore, it would be impossible to make
On several occasions, Gingrich made sure to emphasize that he wasn't advocating pure free-enterprise. "I'm not for a laissez-faire market," he said. "I'm for an Alexander Hamilton, Theodore Roosevelt incentivized market." For instance, he said his proposals wouldn't really be as voluntary as Kerry portrayed them. Gingrich suggested that the government go to GE and utility companies and ask them how much they would need in tax credits to make use of new technologies. After the discussion, I asked Gingrich whether basing a system on tax credits would create lobbying and bureaucracy, just as a system based on regulation. "It will. I just think it's better for the economy to have tax credits than regulation. If you're trying to shape behavior, I'm a Hamiltonian in that I think economic shaping works better than bureaucratic shaping. But it’s clear that it's an interventionist model. It's not a neutral model."
With the presidential election heating up, many conservatives are searching for an heir to Ronald Reagan. But, like Gingrich, the current crop of candidates seems more about making government effective than about making a moral and philosophical case for small government. Giuliani and Romney emphasize their executive experience to argue that they can be fiscally responsible and get things done. McCain, meanwhile, is a reformer and opponent of pork barrel spending. But rather than argue as Reagan did that government isn't the solution to the problem, government is the problem, Republicans seem to be saying that government is part of the problem, but it's also part of the solution.
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