Stop me if you’ve heard this attack: There’s a presidential candidate out there who wants high gas prices to force the government to finally increase regulations on cars, persuade Americans to stop driving those beastly SUVs, nudge people toward clean electric cars — all with the goal of combating climate change. And don’t even think about lowering gas taxes to help car owners out at the pump: That’s just a gimmick. Take a moment and guess which politician is behind these positions.
If you guessed Mitt Romney, you are correct. And his long history of enviro-friendly rhetoric during past surges in gas prices is proving awkward as he slams the White House for taking similar positions today.
The best example yet is probably an audio clip dug up by Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski, purportedly from a 2007 town hall, that contains in just two minutes just about everything Republicans hate about Democrats on energy.
In it, Romney is asked how he feels about requiring higher fuel-efficiency standards from car companies. He says he would consider them, explaining that the government has not required high enough efficiency standards in recent years and that loopholes encourage people to drive SUVs. Not only that, he’s rooting for high gas prices to help get the job done.
“The CAFE requirements have not worked terribly well over the last 20 years in part because they haven’t applied to trucks, so America has moved more and more to trucks and SUVs,” Romney said. “So the average fuel economy over the last, I think it’s 20 years, has been almost flat. I’m hopeful that with $3 gasoline being charged by Hugo Chavez and Ahmadinejad and Putin and others that you’re going to see Americans slowly but surely move to vehicles that are far more fuel efficient and you’ll see our manufacturers start competing on the basis of fuel efficiency.”
Today Romney proudly touts his opposition to fuel efficiency standards on his website, telling one conservative radio host that car companies’ woes came after “the government put in place CAFE requirements that were disadvantageous for domestic manufacturers.”
There’s more from that town hall. Romney specifically praised hybrid cars and electric car technology — now widely mocked on the right — as a potential solution. Romney himself has called the plug-in Chevy Volt “an idea whose time has not come” on the campaign trail and joked this month that “you can’t drive a car with a windmill on it.”
But back in 2007: “I sure hope that you’re going to see more and more hybrids and much better fuel economy,” Romney said. “Plug-in cars, electric cars with better battery technology, might be a way of reducing our emissions.”
This was in line with other past Romney statements that surfaced this week in which he urged Americans to channel the reality of high gas prices into support for alternative energy and conservation. The New Republic noted that Romney specifically opposed cutting the gas tax in his state in 2006 during a spike in oil prices for that very reason.
“I don’t think that now is the time, and I’m not sure there will be the right time, for us to encourage the use of more gasoline,” Romney said then. “I’m very much in favor of people recognizing that these high gasoline prices are probably here to stay.”
Today Romney insists that gas prices are the White House’s fault, even as the overwhelming consensus among experts is that it’s out of the government’s hands, and says that more drilling will help fix the problem. And he wants Obama to fire anyone in his administration who thinks that there are benefits to higher gas prices.
“This ‘gas-hike trio’ has been doing the job over the last three and a half years and gas prices are up,” Romney said last week, referring to Cabinet members Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson. “The right course is they ought to be fired.”
Even Romney’s own energy advisers are reluctant to back him up on his claims this week. Two of them, Glenn Hubbard and Greg Mankiw, have supported taxing energy in order to decrease emissions that contribute to climate change. In other words: increasing gas prices for the sake of the environment. That’s to the left of the Obama administration.
Romney surrogate John Sununu defended Romney’s 2006 and 2007 positions to TPM on Monday, suggesting that the governor was merely putting an optimistic spin on a lousy time for gas prices.
“I think if you look at those interviews what he was saying is we ought to take advantage of the terrible situation,” he said. He added that Romney, then and now, supports both “the production side of energy, where the governor is absolutely committed, and the conservation side” as part of the solution to America’s energy problems.
But add it all up, and Romney and his advisers are on record minimizing the government’s ability to influence gas prices and supporting many of the same goals and policies espoused by Democrats to help promote energy efficiency and combat climate change. Just as his health care bill’s similarities to the Affordable Care Act have made him vulnerable to attacks, Romney’s latest energy offensive might open him up to more of the same charges he’s faced throughout his campaign — that he’ll say and do anything to get elected.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.