Wind Power: Rove, Gibbs and the Politics of Wind’s PTC

So it was with sobering political reality that Karl Rove, a Republican strategist revered for his ability to build the type of coalitions that move voters and legislators alike, spoke to a weary industry Tuesday at the Windpower 2012 in Atlanta. Rove, who in many ways cut his political teeth during the early stages of wind development in Texas, took the stage with former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs in a discussion that meandered easily between traditional talking points and insightful projections.

The industry continues to struggle with the slowdown that is already being felt as the Production Tax Credit (PTC) nears its December expiration. Inside Washington, the PTC has surfaced as one of the key issues ahead of the November election. But it was in Atlanta where the industry received a bird’s-eye view of the political landscape inside the Beltway.

Few are predicting that Congress will pass any meaningful legislation before Election Day in early November. That puts all the political pressure on the period between Nov. 7 and Jan. 15 in which to take up a series of high-stakes issues. One of those could be the PTC, which is seen as vital to American manufacturing and energy production by key legislators on both sides of the aisle.

But the PTC could find itself battling for support in the political trenches alongside other pressing issues like the extension of the Bush tax cuts, looming defense cuts, budget squabbles and perhaps a repeat of the debt ceiling debate that all but paralyzed Washington last summer.

“We’re going to have a train wreck,” said Rove about the prospects of dealing with the PTC during the lame-duck session after the election.

Rove understands that even without election-year perceptions hanging overhead, Congress won’t be able to accomplish in 70 days what it has put off for nearly a year. So, he said, Congress will have to determine where the battle lines should be drawn, which issues get discarded and which will receive a stop-gap measure that kicks certainty farther down the road.

Many in the wind industry are hoping that a one-year extension would serve as stop-gap, and that they’d have a place at the table for the bigger conversation expected to dominate 2013 and spill perhaps into 2014. And that’s fundamental tax reform, which promises to become an incalculable undertaking for a Congress that’s had difficulty finding even small measures of agreement.

Gibbs warned that waiting until after the election would waste one of the few opportunities to score political victories for incumbents of an increasingly unpopular Congress. Legislation that supports jobs during an election year defined by unemployment may be too easy to pass up as House and Senate legislators face voters at home.

“There’s agreement on some things and we ought to clear the plate now,” said Gibbs. “Let’s not wait until the lame duck session. There’s only one reason we wouldn’t get it done. People decide it’s not in their best interest. The policy is airtight. We understand its benefits and its impacts.”

But Rove said Obama doesn’t necessarily understand the politics of the issue. If he did, he wouldn’t have put it on a list of items Congress should pass before their August recess.

“If you want to get something done in a highly charged environment, you have to take the politics out of it,” said Rove.

Rove pointed to two instances in which coalitions needed to be built, often times over the course of years, before successful legislation was passed. In Texas, he said then Gov. George W. Bush faced intense criticism for his desire to build Texas as a wind-generating base. Rove said they worked to gain the support of agriculture groups, environmentalists and distribution advocates who liked the safety net that wind provided.

Once in the White House, Rove helped lay the foundation for a different coalition that led to the passage of the 2005 energy bill. “That energy bill didn’t start with ‘Kumbaya’ around the fire,” he said. “It started with Dick Cheney’s energy committee. The administration found allies, found agreement.” It eventually passed in the midst of Iraq and strong anti-Bush sentiment, underscoring the point that certain issues can transcend presidential politics.

Gibbs disagreed, arguing that Obama has done the legwork to bring key stakeholders to the table and that many in Washington are politically unwilling to accept anything Obama has to offer.

“This is a president who has had to produce his birth certificate,” said Gibbs, leading to one of the lighter moments in an otherwise serious conversation.

“Not to me,” Rove answered. “Only to that idiot Donald Trump.”

Trump is a vocal opponent of wind turbines, especially those planned off the coast of his golf course in Scotland. Judging from Tuesday’s conversation, he’s probably not much of a fan of Karl Rove either.

Steve Leone, Associate Editor,