Romney scores points by bashing enviro regs

Iain, you’re so right that it’s not just bad policy, but bad politics, for Republican candidates not to challenge costly regulations aimed at fending off the exaggerated threat of global warming. And as I wrote last week in the American Spectator, Mitt Romney showed in Michigan that bashing costly environmental regulations can still be good politics, as it was for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and congressional GOP candidates in 1994.

Overlooked in his Michigan victory was the extent to which Romney scored points specifically by attacking regulations that hurt the auto industry, such as the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards and the proposed cap-and-trade energy rationing in the McCain-Lieberman bill co-sponsored by his rival John McCain.

For instance, in a speech Romney gave at a General Motors plant where 200 layoffs had just been announced, Romney put the blame squarely on government mandates such as CAFE, and criticized the new fuel economy mandates in the global warming/ energy bill that McCain supported and President Bush ended up signing. “The first CAFE program was a huge burden on the domestic manufacturing of automobiles,” he said. “The next CAFE program promises to do the same thing, and what help has been associated with it? It’s almost like an unfunded mandate.”

Similarly, in his address to the Detroit Economic club, Romney blasted the McCain-Lieberman bill, pointing out that it was estimated to raise electricity rates by 25 percent and gasoline by as much as 60 cents a gallon and cost 300,000 U.S. jobs.

“Placing caps and taxes on the U.S. alone just drives manufacturers to China and India, and does little more than make Washington politicians feel welcome at the embassy cocktail parties,” warned the former Massachusetts governor.

As I noted in the piece, Romney is not a free-market purist. Specifically, his proposal to spend $4 billion to $20 billion on research and development to revive the auto industry should be troubling to fiscal and social conservatives.

Yet in Michigan, Romney channeled Reagan and the Contract With America to show how deregulation can still be a winning message. He “found his voice” by going from a simple “change” agent with business experience to a pointed critic of the way government frustrates the productive sectors of the economy. And at times, in his own wonky way, Romney could really pair anti-regulatory sentiment with a Reaganesque optimism about the ability of American workers.

“When we send…a Ford Mustang overseas, it’s not just loaded with accessories,” he explained to the audience at the Detroit Economic Club. “It’s loaded with our excessive healthcare costs, our excessive regulatory burdens, our excessive legal liability burden, and the taxes paid by every single automotive supplier to help put product into that car. You take off those burdens, and let’s show them how fast a Mustang will actually go!”

With this anti-regulation message, Romney won males, females, Protestants, Catholics, all levels of education from high-school dropouts to postgraduates, and all income groups above $30,000. And in an important sign for the anti-regulation message in a general election — no matter who the candidates end up being — Romney was only six points behind McCain among the independents who voted in the primary. Running against McCain on domestic issues in a primary open to all voters could indeed be a trial run for a campaign on these issue against a candidate of the other party.

As I said at the end of the Specator piece, “As long as there is an overweening regulatory state, smart bashing of government regulation will never go out of style.” And that’s true even if the regs are clothed in the color “green.”

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