From: Robert Walker, Get America Working!
Published March 10, 2006 12:00 AM

Putting Conversation Back Into Conservatism -- A Guest Commentary

If President Bush were to listen closely, he might hear the ground crunching under his feet.


Rod Dreher, an editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News,, has written Crunchy Cons, a new book that, among other things, urges conservatives to practice “restraint, humility and good stewardship, especially of the natural world.” A conservative with a taste for organic vegetables and Birkenstock sandals, Dreher appears to have tapped into a sudden wellspring of conservative concern for the environment.


If you think Dreher is just an anomaly, think again. National Review, Dreher’s erstwhile employer, has set up a blog to discuss Dreher’s book (crunchycon.nationalreview.com), and CBN’s the 700 Club recently aired a special report on the subject that featured “North Texas crunchy cons.”


Even more significantly, Dreher’s book follows the launch last month of the Evangelical Climate Initiative, a public appeal for action on global warming that was cosigned by 86 leading evangelical leaders, many of whom are regarded as being politically conservative.


Dreher says that “crunchy conservatism” is a “contemporary revival of the traditionalism that, along with libertarianism, is one of the two great streams of the conservative intellectual tradition in America.” That may be an overstatement, but it’s always been wrong for conservatives to equate environmental concern with liberal orthodoxy, as if clean air and water were antithetical to conservative values.


Conservatives who have sought to dismiss environmentalists as “tree-hugging liberals” have long ill-served their ideology. So what is all this leading to? Have we reached a wholly unanticipated tipping point, one in which the conservative movement suddenly gets serious about global warming? Not yet, but the political winds are shifting, and it’s not just the mounting concern about global warming that’s driving the change.


When President Bush called our dependence on foreign oil “an addiction” in his State of the Union address, he was responding to another transcendent concern: oil dependence. In recent months a growing number of columnists and thought leaders, most of them conservative, have been arguing that a higher gasoline tax is required to reduce our consumption of oil. Suddenly, conservation is no longer a dirty word. And, just as suddenly, conservative interest is growing in alternative fuels and renewable energy.


Whether this translates into action depends in large part on whether the ideological divide between “crunchy cons” and “crunchy libs” can be bridged. And it can. With proper understanding and the right prescription, a compromise can be forged.


In addressing any social problem, conservatives generally favor market incentives. When the evangelicals launched their new global warming initiative, they urged the use of “market-based mechanisms” for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They specifically endorsed the idea of using the “cap and trade” approach as called for in the Domenici—Bingaman resolution on global warming that was approved by the Senate last summer.


“Cap and trade,” is one market-based approach to fighting global warming. Another way of achieving the same results is to impose a tax on carbon dioxide emissions.


A carbon tax, as it’s commonly called, would increase the price of coal and, to a lesser extent, oil. Depending on how high it is set, a carbon tax could lead to a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. It’s estimated that a sharply higher gas tax, as many are now suggesting, would do a lot—even in the short term—to reduce gasoline consumption. It might also help to reduce traffic congestion and urban sprawl. Over the long-term, a gas tax could easily propel our transition to vastly more fuel-efficient vehicles. Its contribution to the fight against global warming, while less dramatic, would still be significant.


These advantages alone, however, are unlikely to carry the political day. But if the proceeds of a carbon tax or some form of oil tax were used to reduce payroll taxes a whole different dynamic unfolds. Payroll taxes not only hurt the pocketbooks of low and middle-income workers, they hurt employment. By raising the cost of labor, payroll taxes make American workers less competitive and encourage manufacturers to outsource jobs overseas. By reducing take-home pay, payroll taxes also discourage marginal workers from working.


Reforming taxes is never easy. But if we tell the American people that it doesn’t make sense to tax their earnings more heavily than we tax global warming or oil dependency, the job may get a lot easier.


That’s what a recent New York Times poll revealed. While respondents initially rejected the idea of a higher gasoline tax, support rose dramatically if a gas tax would reduce global warming, curb our dependence or foreign oil, or lead to a reduction in income or payroll taxes.


It’s too early to tell whether we are near a political tipping point, but if President Bush were to change his position on global warming, it would not be the first time that a President changed his position on a major issue.


Rare, indeed, is the political leader who never alters his views in the face of changed facts or overwhelming public sentiment. As Benjamin Disraeli, the famous British statesman, once quipped, “There go the people and I must follow, for I am their leader.”


Change is never inevitable, but change does happen. As Rod Dreher puts it in his book, “one can feel the earth beginning to shake.”


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Robert Walker is president of the nonpartisan fuller employment policy group, Get America Working!.


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