By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Yesterday's global-warming debate between John Kerry and Newt Gingrich was, as the moderator put it, "advertised as a smack-down and a prizefight." But those labels were too modest for Kerry.
"Welcome to our environmental version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates," the former Democratic presidential nominee told the crowd in the Russell Caucus Room. "We flipped a coin, and I picked Lincoln."
But something funny happened on the way to 1858. Gingrich, a former Republican House speaker, refused to play Douglas to Kerry's Lincoln, instead positioning himself as a tree-hugging green.
Before Kerry got a word in, Gingrich conceded that global warming is real, that humans have contributed to it and that "we should address it very actively." Gingrich held up Kerry's new book, "This Moment on Earth," and called it "a very interesting read." He then added a personal note about saving vulnerable species from climate change. "My name, Newt, actually comes from the Danish Knut, and there's been a major crisis in Germany over a polar bear named Knut," he confided.
The warm and fuzzy Gingrich surprised Kerry, who jettisoned prepared remarks that accused the former speaker of "marching in lock step with the climate-change deniers." Instead, Kerry found himself saying: "I've always enjoyed every dialogue he and I have ever had." He added that "your statement is very, very important" and gushed: "I frankly appreciate the candor."
The debate ended. They shook hands. Kerry put an arm around Gingrich. Gingrich put an arm around Kerry. For a brief but terrifying moment, they appeared to be on the verge of a hug.
Before it swerved in the direction of PBS's "NewsHour," the debate had the potential to be a clash of the former titans. Both men are prone to self-inflicted verbal wounds -- Gingrich recently called Spanish the "ghetto" language, and Kerry said last year that bad students get "stuck in Iraq" -- and they had the appearance of natural adversaries.
Gingrich, stout and jowly, went largely unnoticed by the audience as he took his seat before the debate. Kerry, lean and preening, stood in the doorway until the moderator, New York University's Paul Light, inquired: "Senator, would you like to come out and join us?"
Until yesterday, Gingrich and Kerry were not likely candidates for an embrace. When Kerry was running for president in 2004, Gingrich said the senator "thrashed and smeared and lied about U.S. soldiers" and was guilty of "consistent distortion over and over and over again on every front."
But Gingrich, weighing a long-shot presidential run, is unpredictable. He proved that by meeting with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to discuss common ground on health care, and yesterday it was Kerry's turn to be surprised when Gingrich preemptively distanced himself from President Bush on global warming. "I agree entirely with whatever criticism the senator wants to make in general about the absence of American leadership," he said.
Even his one big difference with Kerry -- Gingrich favored tax incentives to reduce carbon dioxide rather than a government "cap and trade" program -- was negotiable. "I am not automatically saying that coercion and bureaucracy is not an answer," he granted.
Kerry appeared uncomfortable as Gingrich impersonated Al Gore. The senator tapped his foot, drummed his fingers, folded his arms and looked around the room with a crooked grin. He tried, at first, to lure Gingrich into a confrontation. "The essence of what I just heard from Newt," he said, is that climate change is "not such a crisis that we have to respond quickly."
Gingrich protested this mischaracterization. "We're not arguing over whether it should be urgent," he said.
Kerry persisted: "We're arguing over the level of the urgency."
"The question of urgency isn't what's being debated here," Gingrich repeated.
Finally, Kerry relented. "I'm excited to hear you talk about the urgency," he said. But "what would you say to Senator [Jim] Inhofe [R-Okla.] and to others in the Senate who are resisting even the science?"
Gingrich didn't hesitate. "My message," he said, "is that the evidence is sufficient that we should move towards the most effective possible steps to reduce carbon loading of the atmosphere." The pro-Kerry crowd applauded.
"And do it urgently?" the senator pressed.
"And do it urgently, yeah," the former speaker replied. "I think there has to be, if you will, a green conservatism," he added.
Kerry didn't know quite what to do with his agreeable opponent. "I'm a little confused about sort of where Newt comes from on this," he said at first. Later, Kerry tried to switch places with Gingrich, branding him a big-government liberal. "You know, this is a huge transition," he exclaimed. "You actually want the government to do it. I want the private sector to do it."
By the end of the debate, Lincoln/Kerry was embracing Douglas/Gingrich as a global-warming ally, saying things such as "What we need to do is what Newt just said."
"I'll lay odds if Newt Gingrich and I were responsible for making this happen, we could get in a room and in a week, we'd come up with a program and make it happen," Kerry ventured.
Gingrich nodded. Moments later, he held up his new friend's book again. "I'm going to sell a few more books for you, John," he promised.
Political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.