I'll say this for Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman: He's not afraid of getting in hot water with the Tea Party, the extremist wing of the GOP that is vetting potential nominees for the White House.
Thursday evening, at a dinner in Washington sponsored by Republicans for Environmental Protection, Huntsman said, ""I'm not ashamed to be a conservationist. I also believe that science should be driving our discussions on climate change."
While that might not sound like a radical stand, conventional wisdom these days holds that Republicans, whether seeking the presidency or simply trying to hold their seat in Congress, must distance themselves from any previous expressions of concern about climate or the environment.
Presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty is a case in point. In 2008, he appeared in an ad with then-Arizona governor Janet Napolitano, calling on Congress to adopt legislation to address climate change. That ad, he says, "was a mistake. It was stupid." The former Minnesota governor points out that most of the other candidates in the GOP field previously held similar views and have since backpedaled.
Will Huntsman's principled stand on climate change doom his chances?
Huntsman may be more clever here than most people think. For starters, his position on climate change sets him apart from the rest of the field. And while all the other candidates are scrambling for a slice of the Tea Party vote, Huntsman can own the moderate vote in the Republican party, people increasingly marginalized within the GOP. Many centrist Republicans are looking for a reason not to bolt from their party, and Huntsman could provide the motivation for them to hang in there and for others to return to the fold.
So, here's my advice for the former Utah governor: If you're going to stand alone on the issue of climate change, go ahead and fully embrace it by proposing a solution that both Republicans and Democrats can agree to.
Huntsman, who once championed a cap-and-trade system for western states, now says that approach hasn't worked and "our economy's in a different place than it was five years ago." The implication is that pricing carbon through a trading mechanism will be a drag on our struggling economy.
Fine. Skip the trading, but put a direct fee on carbon-based fuels and give the revenue back to the American people. By sending a clear, predictable price signal to investors, billions will flow into clean energy and energy efficiency, ramping up the green tech sector to provide the jobs that America desperately needs now.
"The S&P 500 is sitting on $1.18 trillion in cash," said Lily Donge of Calvert Investments. "If there's a price signal on carbon that unleashes even 10 percent of that, that would be more than $100 billion in new investment channeled toward clean energy."
And by giving the revenue back to households as direct payments, low- and middle-class Americans will be shielded from the impact of higher energy costs associated with the carbon fee. A majority of Americans would actually receive more from the "carbon dividend" than they would pay for higher costs, adding another stimulus to the economy.
By making the pricing mechanism revenue-neutral -- giving all the money back to the people -- Huntsman can stay true to the most highly valued principle of the Republican party: Don't increase the size of government.
But what about the "No Carbon Tax Pledge" signed by more than 170 members of Congress? Interestingly, the Americans for Prosperity-sponsored pledge specifically states: "I will oppose any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue."
No problem with a revenue-neutral fee.
For the environmentally-minded Republicans attending the Teddy Roosevelt dinner in Washington Thursday evening, Huntsman's message provided a moment of encouragement in a time of great disappointment. By embracing the issue of climate change and proposing a revenue-neutral price on carbon, Huntsman can transform the current image of Republicans from a party of obstruction to a party of solutions.