Connecting the Dots

Washington, D.C. -- Things are going to be pretty strange -- and depressing -- in this city for a while. Many of the incoming members of Congress carry with them internal contradictions even more massive than is characteristic of politicians. And the established Republican leadership in the House and Senate is betting the store -- and the nation -- that they can cover up those contradictions just long enough to restore George Bush's era in 2012.

One reason why things came out as badly as they did two weeks ago was that progressives -- both inside and outside of government -- often failed to connect the dots for voters. When we did, as on Prop 23 in California, voters chose the future. When we didn't, as happened with Prop 26 in the same state with the same electorate, fear and the past won out.

So we've just got to do a better job of explaining to voters what lies behind the agenda we face -- and what it means for them. And we won't lack for examples, if the past week is any sample.

Michigan congressman Fred Upton and Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, sounded off yesterday about the desirability of cutting funds from programs like home weatherization and appliance-efficiency labeling, wrapped in the guise of "reforming" the rules of the House Commerce Committee, which Upton may head next year.  Reading the Politico piece, you might think that Upton has a long history of being a ferocious deficit hawk. In fact he is a protégé of former Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman, under whose watch the federal deficit had its first out-of-control peacetime deficit, under Ronald Reagan.  And Upton has not previously presented himself as a hard-line enemy of sensible energy policy -- in fact in 2005 he cooperated with Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts to expand daylight savings time to save energy.

But Upton wants to head the Commerce Committee -- and he has been attacked by his competitor, Texas Republican "Smoky Joe" Barton for his earlier leadership in requiring a phaseout of incandescent light bulbs for more efficient ones, again a measure that saves consumers money.  The charge against Upton was led by Rush Limbaugh, who thundered:

This would be a tone-deaf disaster if the Republican leadership lets Fred Upton ascend to the chairmanship of the House energy committee. This is exactly the kind of nannyism, statism, what have you, that was voted against and was defeated last week. No Republican complicit in nannyism, statism, can be rewarded this way.

Penning a joint op-ed with Grover Norquist attacking a similarly sensible government program is a healthy inoculation, Upton clearly hopes, against these charges of being "too moderate."

Cutting these programs will cost consumers money, and raise their energy bills -- but Upton and Norquist will present them as "saving money." And Limbaugh will welcome them as somehow advancing the cause of American freedom.

Of course, the Republican caucus has choices other than Upton and Barton. There is also Illinois congressman John Shimkus, who dismisses global warming in this YouTube clip as being "unbiblical." Shimkus, of course, is quoting selectively from the Bible -- he claims Genesis says God promised never again to flood the entire earth -- and indeed none of the IPCC studies show biblical levels of flooding. Shimkus's own district, for example, is reasonably safe from sea level rise, even if the Greenland ice sheet and Antarctica both melt. But, most unbiblically, Shimkus then goes on to say that during the age of the dinosaurs carbon-dioxide levels were much higher than they are today, and suggests that this would be a good thing. (Which, for dinosaurs, it might be.)

But Shimkus doesn't seem to have learned his hymns very well. The old gospel verse "won't be water, but fire next time" captures the full biblical narrative about the fate of the earth. The Bible does promise that there will never again be a flood of the magnitude that Noah encountered -- but nowhere does it promise that the earth is safe from overheating.

America's homebuilders are meanwhile working themselves into high dudgeon at the idea that they might have to build better houses to save their customers money on their utility bills. The International Code Council has recently finalized new building code regulations that will cut energy bills by 30 percent. The National Association of Homebuilders screamed bloody murder, claiming that the changes were adopted only because, for a change, energy-efficiency advocates were as well organized as the builders were. What are they so upset about? In their words: "This new code edition will require builders to more tightly seal new homes and their heating and cooling ducts, install highly energy-efficient windows, greatly increase the insulation installed in the building envelope...." In short, builders will no longer be able to erect shoddy, leaky homes to save on their costs, and pass the resulting exorbitant utility bills on to their customers. Shocking, simply shocking.

The Tea Party, meanwhile, is having an elderberry-wine moment. Health standards for drinking water are the latest example of intrusive federal oppression, at least in the eyes of Tea Party organizations in Northern Kentucky. They are outraged that their local water district is planning to upgrade its water-treatment processes to remove chemicals from the local drinking-water supply that increase the risk of bladder cancer. "No one will take on EPA" laments the local Tea Party lawyer. The chemicals that cause bladder cancer in this case were not, it happens, found in the drinking water consumed by the American colonists, so it is true that John Adams didn't foresee the need for an Environmental Protection Agency. But the practical consequence if the Tea Party gets its way and we do away with clean water regulations will not be the Boston Tea Party, but something much more like "Arsenic and Old Lace," in which the fatal poisons were delivered in that very Colonial drink, elderberry wine.

So do you think that the vote two weeks ago was in favor of higher energy prices, a bigger federal deficit, and toxic drinking water? Perhaps not. But those whose voice in Washington was amplified do think their mandate extends this far, and they have reasonable people running scared. We need to connect the dots for our friends and neighbors.