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How Marco Rubio is signaling moderation — without being moderate

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Those of us who follow climate change and clean energy news have found Marco Rubio sliding all up in our headlines over the past week.

First there was the kerfuffle over his past support for cap and trade, which his campaign has hotly contested.

Then, even as he was distancing himself from climate policy, came this headline: "Rubio: 'Let's be No. 1' in renewable energy."

Rubio had this to say to a crowd in New Hampshire:

I want us to lead the world in everything. Let's be number one in wind, let's be number one in solar, let's be number one in biofuel, number one in renewables, number one in energy efficiency. Let's lead in all of these things.

So is Rubio a bleeding-heart green or not? What's his game?

Rubio's strategy

The answer is that Rubio has a strategy, which he has implemented with admirable consistency and discipline throughout his brief, meteoric career in politics. It doesn't appear to be working at the moment — he's a distant third in Iowa — but Rubio's playing a long game, betting that his more conventional approach will win in the end.

The strategy, described well here by Jonathan Chait, is simple: Run as the Party Man. Support orthodox conservative policies while foregrounding personal qualities (young, optimistic, fresh-faced, Latino) and occasional small, counterintuitive ideological heresies.

In this way Rubio can claim position as the moderate alternative to Trump/Cruz.

(This strategy will sound familiar to those of you old enough to remember "compassionate conservatism.")

marco rubio
Thinking thoughtfully.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

The "moderate" descriptor has been used, says Chait, "by Rubio’s rivals, by his friends, and by neutral reporters," but "there is no sense in which that description is true — not in relation to modern Republican politics, and perhaps not even in relation to his allegedly more extreme opponents."

Let's look at how this plays out in energy.

Renewable energy has become a signal of moderation

The key to the strategy is choosing the small heresies wisely — they must be big enough to signal that you're an Independent Thinker, not an Ideological Extremist, but they can't be so big that they threaten establishment interests or generate undue blowback.

Cap and trade used to be such a signal on the right. John McCain, who convinced the world he's a freethinking maverick despite a bog-standard ideological voting record (a feat Rubio would love to replicate), championed cap and trade in the aughts.

When Obama was elected and a cap-and-trade bill became a live possibility, McCain bailed. The issue reached the Senate just as the Tea Party was emerging in 2010, an unfortunate convergence that left "cap and trade" radioactive on the right. That's why Rubio is backpedaling from it now.

grist
From a fun comic I once wrote about the climate bill.
(Grist.org)

But renewable energy is different. As I've been saying forever, wind and solar power are incredibly popular. Polls show that their appeal transcends partisan, regional, and demographic differences. Even in 2011, at the height of Tea Party mania, incentives for solar were the single most popular policy Gallup polled.

gallup policy poll (Gallup)

There is only one group of voters that consistently takes a dim view of renewable energy. It's also the only group in which a majority deny the existence of climate change. It's also the only group that thought Obama was preparing a military coup in Jade Helm.

Can you guess?

Expressing a desire for the US to be "number one in solar" is another signal from Rubio to Republican moderates and independents that he's not That Kind of Republican, the cranky kind that rejects modernity and hates everything new. It's a play at electability.

But policy is a different thing

Later in Rubio's remarks, he clarified that he would do away with all the tax credits that now support renewable energy. This would be done in the name of creating a "level playing field," and "the private sector will take care of the rest." (Anyone familiar with the US electricity sector will find the notion of a level playing field darkly humorous.)

Rubio's energy plan is also dusted with rhetoric about Innovation and the Future, but underneath lies unstinting policy support for fossil fuels. Rubio would loosen regulations on fossil fuel projects, accelerate drilling, mining, and export permits, and hand resource decisions over to the states. He has also promised to overturn Obama's Environmental Protection Agency regulations on coal and permanently constrain EPA's ability to pass new regulations.

It is, in other words, an orthodox Republican plan. (There's a reason James Inhofe has endorsed Rubio.)

oil wells
The future.
Shutterstock

The Rubio Gambit

Energy is only the latest target of the Rubio Gambit.

The best example so far is his tax plan, which contains, among other things, a $2,500-per-child tax credit for families with children. For this he was rewarded with the following Politico headline: "Rubio tax plan challenges GOP orthodoxy."

Subsequent analysis, deploying math, discovered that the plan massively favors the top 1 percent, especially when the implied spending cuts are considered.

It is, in other words, an orthodox Republican plan.

Rubio Bush Trump tax cuts

Rubio also announced an anti-poverty program in 2014 and has been part of the "poverty tour" organized by House Speaker Paul Ryan. The man-bites-dog nature of Republicans addressing poverty yielded another round of friendly headlines.

Upon examination, the plan mainly involves turning over control of ("block granting") federal anti-poverty money to state governments, a very old and very bad Republican idea that is, again, entirely orthodox.

And so on. The bet is that semi-engaged voters will sense the atmospherics of moderation and won't bother to look too closely — not an entirely unreasonable expectation.

Back to the future

So Rubio wants to help renewable energy projects the way he wants to help poor people: by cutting off the bulk of their public support, replacing it with hortatory rhetoric, and reinforcing the socioeconomic status quo with decades-old conservative policies under the banner of a "new American century."

It's just what the Republican establishment ordered.

So far, though, it doesn't seem to be selling. And it sounds like the establishment is getting accustomed to the unimaginable.

Nonetheless, if this surreal episode ends and a more conventional presidential race emerges from the smoke, it's probably going to involve Rubio.

Rather than sell Republican orthodoxy from position of congenital apoplexy — the Trump/Cruz strategy — he will sell the same agenda from a position of sunny optimism.

A Rubio America will "lead the world in everything," including renewable energy.

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