Newt Gingrich is an epic talker, and a somewhat elliptical one. If you ask him a straightforward question, he at first appears to be answering an entirely different one.
The onetime Republican Speaker of the House and main architect of the Contract With America starts telling an anecdoteusually a pretty interesting oneand in the process cites several scientific studies and books hes recently read. It gradually dawns on his interlocutor that hes circling back to your question, and in fact answering it, though in a fairly oblique form.
As we now know, Gingrich is not running for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2008. But he is promoting a new environmental book, Contract With the Earth (Johns Hopkins, $20) that he wrote with Palm Beach Zoo head Terry L. Maple. Considering that the Contract With America included provisions that went at environmental regulations with a meat ax, its somewhat surprising to encounter Gingrich as a born-again green. But the gentleman from Georgia still embraces the free market, and his new 10-point prescription is based largely on voluntary action, partnerships with business and, interestingly enough, contests. Lots of contests.
Gingrich frequently cites Teddy Roosevelt and his mentor Ronald Reagan, but hes no great fan of the current occupant of the White House. "One of the great failures of the Bush Presidency is the decision not to invest in climate science," Gingrich said at a roundtable discussion with reporters November 1 at the Williams Club in Manhattan. "Bush could have been a champion for expanding our scientific knowledge. Im a great student of World War II, and in that period we had a methodical, structural approach to increasing our knowledge base." One of his main regrets as speaker, he says, is not tripling the budget for the National Science Foundation.
In the book and in New York, Gingrich downplayed regulation in favor of incentives and partnerships with business. Asked about the push for imposing 35-mile-per-gallon Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards on the automakers, he said, "You cant punish people into change. If the focus is solely on CAFE, I guarantee the automakers will go into the boardrooms with their lawyers and figure a way to work around CAFE."
With that, Gingrich launched into an anecdote, one he got from William F. Buckley. It seems that General Motors, Ford and Chrysler used to build their own stretch limousines, but got out of that business because the limos were such gas guzzlers they affected the carmakers ability to comply with federal fuel economy rules. So the work went instead to private coachbuilders, who now build far more of them than the Detroit companies ever did. "And now every high school kid rides to the prom in a limo," Gingrich proclaimed.
Sure, there are flaws in federal laws, but public-private partnerships dont always work out, either. A classic example of this is the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV), a Clinton-era program collaborating with Detroit to create 80-mpg vehicles. The U.S. carmakers built prototype hybrid vehicles and toured them around to auto shows but, as I recount in my book Forward Drive, they balked at actually building them. Drowning in cheap oil and awash in SUV profits, they stayed the course. Meanwhile, by 2000 Toyota and Honda had introduced the Prius and the Insight, and a hybrid market was born. Just not an American market.
I asked Gingrich about this and, true to form, he gave me an answer that didnt say much about PNGV, but was interesting anyway. He blamed Detroits problems on the demands of the United Auto Workers and "an incestuous culture," chiding the continuous obtuseness of these three companies in refusing to imagine the future." Meanwhile, he added, Toyota and Honda make relentless, steady improvements."
Even though theyre embraced by most environmentalists as the only practical incentive to reduce our greenhouse gas burden, Gingrich doesnt like the idea of either a carbon tax or cap-and-trade systemsjust more government regulation, he says. Gingrich does likes the idea of the hydrogen energy economy, and he also likes the concept of Americas billionaires getting together and offering a huge prize for the first company that comes up with a ready-for-manufacture, affordable automotive fuel cell. Hed offer prizes for killer ap battery technology, too.
"We may be on the brink of an amazing scientific breakthrough," Gingrich said. "We have to remove the barriers to innovation." And he got no arguments for saying that.
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