Almost Every 2012 Republican Has a Cap-and-Trade Problem

A lot has changed since 2008, when there was a broader GOP consensus that aggressive legislation was needed to confront global warming

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Supporting a cap-and-trade approach to greenhouse gas regulation is basically taboo in the GOP these days, but most of the top-tier Republican presidential contenders have backed it in the past.

Just a few short years ago, John McCain supported cap-and trade as a Republican presidential candidate, after he pushed for it in a bill he coauthored with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). In April of 2007, McCain talked up cap-and-trade in a speech on his energy plan at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:

I have proposed a bipartisan plan to address the problem of climate change and stimulate the development and use of advanced technologies. It is a market-based approach that would set reasonable caps on carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions, and provide industries with tradable credits. By reducing its emissions, a utility or industrial plant can generate credits it may trade on the open market for a profit, offering a powerful incentive to drive the deployment of new and better energy sources and technologies; for automakers to develop new ways to lower pollution and increase mileage; for utilities to generate cleaner electricity and capture carbon; for appliance manufacturers to make more efficient products, and for the nation to use energy with maximum efficiency-building conservation into the economy in a manner that produces financial and environmental benefits.

Nowadays, you'd be hard pressed to find a Republican who supports the policy, after conservatives railed for two years against "cap-and-tax" as a job-killing government overreach. Backlash against the policy helped Republicans take over the House in November, after House Democrats passed Rep. Henry Waxman's (D-Calif.) cap-and-trade bill in June 2009 over resistance from the GOP minority. Republican candidates campaigned against cap-and-trade en masse in 2010, and it worked out in their favor.

After all that, Republican White House hopefuls have revised their previously held energy stances.

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty supported cap-and-trade in 2007 but has since urged Congress to reject it. He won plaudits from RedState's Erick Erickson for apologizing for his prior cap-and-trade support in the first Republican presidential debate, held last week in South Carolina.

Mitt Romney has incorporated President Obama's support for cap-and-trade into fundraising pitches, but in 2005 Romney supported an early emissions-capping system -- a regional agreement that would require Northeastern states to cut power-plant emissions by 2020.

Mike Huckabee told a Clean Air Cool Planet gathering in New Hampshire in 2007, "I also support cap-and-trade of carbon emissions, and I was disappointed when the Senate rejected it." In 2009, as cap-and-trade politics heated up, Huckabee explained that he supported "voluntary" cap-and-trade for businesses that "choose" to be a part of it, but that he had "a great fear of heavy-handed government mandates of cap-and-trade," although the rejected McCain-Lieberman climate bill had included mandatory caps.

Politifact deemed Sarah Palin to have flip-flopped on cap-and-trade, but it's a bit more complicated -- she began to supported it as McCain's runningmate. VP candidates generally adopt the presidential candidate's platform when tapped to join a ticket, though Palin continued to differ with McCain on other matters.

Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, told Frontline in 2007 that "I think if you have mandatory carbon caps combined with a trading system, much like we did with sulfur, and if you have a tax-incentive program for investing in the solutions, that there's a package there that's very, very good. And frankly, it's something I would strongly support." And he cut a TV ad with then-speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2008 calling for action on climate change. Since then, he's campaigned against it.

Does this mean none of these candidates can win the 2012 Republican presidential nomination?

Probably not, and for this simple reason: There's no one around to criticize them. Cap-and-trade flip-flops could pave the way for a second-tier candidate like Herman Cain or former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), but, with so much of the top tier having held the same stances just a few years ago, climate flip-flops are actually the norm in the Republican field. None of these candidates risks getting hammered on cap-and-trade by a gang of substantial and threatening rivals, because no such gang exists.

Palin could stand out as the only Republican who consistently polls in the top five who hasn't flip-flopped on cap-and-trade, if voters grant that her 2008 support was a product of her presence on the McCain ticket.

These changed minds show that a lot has changed in the GOP when it comes to energy policy in just a few short years. In 2007 and 2008, the party's top politicians had reached a consensus that global warming existed, was probably caused by humans, and required an aggressive emissions-regulation scheme to confront it.

Today, they say the opposite.