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Rubio’s energy plan is boilerplate conservatism, but his spin on it is … novel

marco rubio (Photo by David Greedy/Getty Images)

Assessing the energy plans of this year's Republican candidates for president is a bit like assessing the candidates themselves. There is a remarkable degree of overlap on policy, so the differences — who's "moderate," who's "Tea Party," who's an "insider," who's an "outsider" — reduce almost entirely to questions of affect and tactics. If you promise maximum belligerence and minimum compromise, you are a conservative. If you signal more fealty to the business side than the social conservative side, you are a moderate.

Either way, when the tax, health, and energy plans are released, they tend to hew to orthodox conservatism, dismantling Obama's programs and replacing them with lower taxes on the wealthy, private health savings accounts, and drill, drill, drilling. The interesting differences, where there are any, appear in the spin, the rhetorical flavor.

So it is with Republican energy plans. Marco Rubio released his this week: "Powering the New American Century." Policy-wise it's entirely what you'd expect, but the spin is notable, at least in its willingness to risk absurdity.

Rubio's energy policy is orthodox conservatism that hasn't changed much in 30 years

Much like Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, the entire 2012 Republican presidential field, John McCain, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan, Rubio believes the oil and gas industry should be freed from regulatory constraints so that more domestic oil and gas can be extracted. He believes that states should have control over fossil fuel extraction in sensitive and protected areas, rather than the federal government (which has an annoying habit of protecting protected areas). He believes permits for drilling, mining, and export infrastructure should be accelerated (the modern incarnation of this one: the Keystone pipeline and oil and gas export facilities).

One difference that entered the mix between the Bush administrations: Where Reagan signed and Bush Sr. helped strengthen the Montreal Protocol, from Bush Jr. onward the GOP became steadily more hostile to international agreements, which has culminated in the Republican leader of the Senate actively working to undermine Obama's position in the Paris climate talks. Rubio promises to "defend US interests" in climate talks, by which he means offering zero funding assistance to poor countries and rejecting all carbon constraints.

Another difference that entered between McCain's 2008 loss and the rise of the Tea Party: Bush Sr. had his EPA create a cap-and-trade system to reduce acid rain-causing pollutants like SO2, Bush Jr. signed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (which pushed fuel economy, biofuels, and energy efficiency), and McCain supported a carbon cap-and-trade program. Heck, even Rubio once supported cap and trade (courtesy of BuzzFeed):

But post–Tea Party Republicans have foresworn all energy policy that supports pollution reduction or alternative energy, with every candidate, including Rubio, promising to roll back Obama's EPA regulations and eliminate subsidies to renewable energy.

So all attempts at balance, anything beyond a notional gesture at "all of the above" energy policy, have been stripped away. What remains is what every contemporary Republican candidate who has spoken on the issue has echoed in a single voice: more fossil fuels (and nuclear power).

Rubio does not mention climate change or pollution. Nor does he mention solar or wind power by name, only "renewables" — in the context of creating a "level playing field" by removing their tax subsidies.

Like Bush and Fiorina, Rubio says the word "innovation" a lot, especially as an alternative to the dread "regulation." But the innovation agenda, such as it is, turns out to be shutting down federal programs that invest in promising technologies (the policies that have spurred such innovation in renewable energy in recent years). Instead, he would unleash Department of Energy basic research on the world through removing unspecified "red tape." Freezing the status quo in place like this is framed as "promoting competition."

Anyway, it's all boilerplate conservatism. Like conservative tax policy, it hasn't changed in decades; it's only become more concentrated and less apologetic. Rubio's energy policy, like his tax policy, is raw and extreme, but that doesn't distinguish it, or him, from his competitors.

marco rubio
"Look at me and the hip young people! We were just discussing oil drilling."
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Rubio's unique take is to spin orthodox conservative energy policy as forward-looking

Rubio's value proposition in the Republican field is that he espouses orthodox conservative policy, but from the position of a young, fresh-faced Latino — just the cosmetic change the party establishment believes, or at least fondly hopes, will be sufficient to reverse their recent bad luck in presidential races. So Rubio has worked overtime to position himself as a hope-and-change candidate, working for a "new American century" against Democrats and their antiquated attachment to using government policy to solve problems.

It is an awkward fit in the energy space, forcing Rubio to pitch increased fossil fuel extraction as an "energy revolution" and Hillary Clinton's plan to invest in solar power and smart grids as "outdated." It forces him to laud the miracles of exploding fossil fuel production while simultaneously lamenting the onerous regulations that have squashed fossil fuel production. And it forces him to completely ignore the most radical revolution taking place in energy today: the more-rapid-than-anyone-expected global rise of renewable energy.

Perhaps it must be ignored. It has been facilitated rather than inhibited by government policy, and such a phenomenon is definitionally impossible in conservative orthodoxy. So despite renewable energy's sky-high popularity, even among conservative voters, economic royalists like Rubio must pretend it doesn't exist.

Anyway, as Jonathan Chait says:

It seems bizarre to frame Rubio’s plan to reject the scientific consensus and redouble American reliance on fossil fuels as "new," and to mock a plan to transition to emerging green energy sources as "old." But the entire premise of Rubio’s candidacy is that the only thing standing between the Republican Party and a restoration of its long-standing policy agenda is a young face that calls its ideas new.

That gets the spirit of the attempt right, but I don't think it will work on this issue.

A young aide named Pat Buchanan once encouraged his boss, Richard Nixon, to use racial tensions to divide the country, famously saying, "My view is that we [Republicans] would have far the larger half."

If Republicans choose to divide the country on climate and energy, they will find that Democrats will have far the larger half. That's true no matter how fresh-faced their spokesperson.

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