The highly anticipated debate between Karl Rove, former deputy chief of staff and senior adviser to President George W. Bush, and Robert Gibbs, former White House press secretary and longtime senior adviser to President Obama, did not disappoint.
The two squared off Tuesday morning at the American Wind Energy Association's (AWEA) WINDPOWER 2012 Conference & Exhibition, which is being held this week in Atlanta.
The lively question-and-answer format, moderated by AWEA CEO Denise Bode, provided attendees a window into Capitol Hill's cold, political motivations over the past 15 years. Not surprisingly, the discussion was dominated by the soon-to-expire production tax credit (PTC).
Rove and Gibbs agreed on the importance of extending the federal incentive, with Gibbs proclaiming that energy ‘is as important a public policy’ as there is on the agenda. However, Rove and Gibbs quickly laid out the challenges in passing a PTC extension, particularly in a lame-duck Congress, which many people had assumed would be a more likely route to passage.
‘There's going to be a train wreck after the election,’ Rove declared, explaining that not only will the PTC be up for discussion, but several other tax measures will also come due, such as the Bush-era tax cuts, as well as other tax extenders.
Gibbs agreed with Rove's assessment, saying the period running from late November to mid-January will be difficult for both political parties – regardless of the election's outcome.
Echoing the president's statements from last week, Gibbs said the PTC is not a partisan issue. He called the policy ‘airtight,’ adding that political motivations would be the only – albeit influential – factor in opposition to its passage.
The discussion was not limited to wind energy and often digressed into other topics, such as the need to reform the U.S. tax code.
‘We have so many things in our tax code that we do so badly,’ Rove explained, citing an example that discourages further investment in the U.S.
For instance, when a U.S. company has an overseas factory and sells that product outside the U.S., it pays the foreign tax on the profit. If the company wants to send the profit back to the U.S., the company also has to pay U.S. tax on that profit, making it more likely for the company to reinvest the profit overseas.
In fact, tax reform will be high on presidential candidate Mitt Romney's list of priorities – ‘when he wins,’ Rove said with an air of certainty.
The banter between Rove and Gibbs during their 45-minute interaction was spirited – even playful at times. Having entered the stage first, Rove took his place on the couch nearest Bode. Gibbs then proceeded to point out that his Republican political counterpart, was in fact, ‘sitting on the left’ – to which Rove retorted, ‘And you're sitting on the right.’
Apart from the political grind, both men looked relaxed on stage. And based on a few instances of spontaneous applause from the audience, some attendees saw a different side of Rove.
Let the battle begin
Of course, with two highly skilled political operatives involved, there were bound to be instances of differing political ideology. Such was the case when the discussion turned to energy policy and, in particular, methods for getting the PTC passed.
According to Gibbs, President Obama has high hopes for the PTC's passage. In fact, the president made the incentive part of Congress' "To Do List" for before it breaks for its August recess. Gibbs noted, however, that the PTC had a ‘slim possibility of being passed before lame-duck Congress.’
On the other hand, Rove said Obama made an extreme political error by publicly adding the PTC to his agenda.
‘That was the worst thing that could have happened [for the PTC]," Rove said. "If you want to get anything done in Washington, you have to take the politics out of it.’
Rove openly questioned Obama's ability to lead a divided Congress. A veteran of Washington politics, Rove is accustomed to political theater. In a discussion about the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct), Rove said many of the act's central tenets were borne out of a task force headed up by Dick Cheney. The early recommendations of the task force, Rove said, were ‘eviscerated’ by politically motivated Democrats.
‘Let's not kid ourselves here – the atmosphere wasn't exactly Kumbaya,’ Rove said, adding that the task force's recommendations served as a favorite target of Nancy Pelosi.
According to Rove, strong leadership in the executive branch won over early critics, and the EPAct passed with wide bipartisan support.
Gibbs didn't exactly defend his former boss' leadership with the same vigor that Rove did in levying the charge. However, Gibbs assured attendees that President Obama's intentions for the PTC are sincere.
‘I know where the president is on this,’ Gibbs said. ‘But is there going to be someone at the other end of the table?’
The two also offered some friendly advice to attendees. Gibbs urged the audience to visit and educate legislators when they return home for the August recess.
‘Let them know the economic and job impact at stake,’ he stated.
For his part, Rove urged the wind industry to continue to focus on technological advancements and to not engage in a battle with rival generating sources.
‘Focus on wind,’ he said. ‘Don't pick up additional enemies. It should not be about wind versus coal, or wind versus natural gas. Don't focus on unnecessary fights. Believe me, you'll pick up plenty of enemies along the way.’