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Green Grudges From Bill

On Monday, former President Bill Clinton spoke at the National Clean Energy Summit at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, a forum convened by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Center for American Progress President John Podesta, Clinton's former chief of staff. The conversation focused not just on cap-and-trade legislation, but on improving efficiency and prodding the American economy into developing clean technology and bringing it to commercial scale.

Clinton has obviously studied up on the climate issue since his years of casual interest in the White House. For 30 minutes, he waded into the nuance of energy policy, making some great points that Americans would do well to heed--if with a more subdued mien than we're accustomed to. Clinton harped upon the need to diversify sourcing of American energy, through solutions large and small--from increasing efficiency standards for appliances (eg. the EnergyStar program, which began under Bush 41) to modernizing America's aging electric infrastructure (which Energy Policy Acts in 1992 and 2005 did little to improve). He also said that greens cannot get bogged down in pessimistic projections about the costs of climate action to USGDP: "If that's our line, we're gonna lose," he insisted.

Then, however, Clinton said this:

“Obviously, I favor Senator Obama’s energy positions, and Democrats have been by and large the more forward-leaning actors,” Mr. Clinton said. “But John McCain has the best record of any Republican running for president on the energy issue and on climate change.” He added, “I’m very encouraged about where the presidential rhetoric is in this campaign.”

This is a backhanded, fairly cutting critique of Barack Obama. I've written before that Obama, as an Illinois representative, is not a natural friend of the environment (see his stance on corn ethanol, which Clinton rightly dislikes). But having intellectualized the issue, and by virtue of being the Democratic nominee in 2008, Obama has put forward a vastly better and more genuine energy plan, that's easily the most ambitious we've seen from the party in history. Whereas John McCain's incoherent and opportunistic leveraging of a dated record on the environment has been called out repeatedly this election cycle. Clinton did pooh-pooh offshore drilling--but with energy management a hot-button political issue, on which Democrats have begun losing traction this summer, it would be nice to see Bill accentuate the positive.

Grist has a fine rundown of what else Clinton said in Nevada. But the politics of that statement are quite obnoxious. With luck, now that Obama is starting to fluff Clinton's 1990s legacy a bit more forcefully on the stump, the elder statesman will change his tune. Because if that's his line, "we're gonna lose."

--Dayo Olopade