Published by National Journal’s Energy & Environment Expert Blog

It’s time to take off the kid gloves in the energy debate.

For the last five years, clean-tech advocates have extolled the potential benefits of a clean energy economy. You know the drill: millions of new jobs; freedom from oil; better technologies and cleaner air.

Where have we gotten in terms of policy outcomes? Besides ARRA’s clean energy investments and higher fuel mileage standards, practically nowhere, and the clean energy industry is poised for a crash, as my colleagues argued on this forum.

Meanwhile, on the political front, we are witnessing one of the harshest backlashes against the role of government and public investment in U.S. history. The Tea Party has successfully hijacked the national agenda to focus on deficit reduction at all costs, even with unemployment above 9%. Science and technology budgets are under attack across the board, with the recent House Appropriations bill slashing budgets for energy innovation, NIST, NASA, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which was cut by over 55 percent. What will emerge from the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction – or what the outcome will be if it fails to reach a deal – is highly uncertain, but it could result in even more draconian cuts to energy and technology budgets.

The bottom line: clean energy and innovation advocates across the board are losing. Badly. No matter how grand the benefits of a sensible economic policy proposal might be – whether in clean energy or other sectors – extolling these benefits is hardly a winning approach in today’s political environment.

Hence the need to take off the kids’ gloves and develop a new strategy.

As I just argued at Breakthrough Journal, if advanced energy advocates want to help salvage the United States from a decade or more of political dysfunction and economic malaise, they need to present a stark choice to the public in the years ahead: elect “leaders” who refuse to govern and would tear the country down — thus empowering China to dominate the 21st century — or choose a vision and agenda to rebuild the economy and reclaim American strength for decades to come.

Despite the current dysfunction, exceptionalism still runs deep within the American psyche, as it has since the founding and throughout Civil War and Great Depression. As national pollster Stan Greenberg has said, “People think the country is in trouble and that countries like China have a strategy for success and we don’t. They will follow someone who convinces them that they have a plan to make America great again. That is what they want to hear. It cuts across Republicans and Democrats.”

Earlier this year, a Gallup poll found that 52% of the public would name China as the world’s “leading economic power,” the highest percentage favoring another country in Gallup polling history. In contrast, only 7% named Japan, and just 3% the European Union. Meanwhile, the IMF recently projected that China’s GDP will surpass the U.S. by 2016, measured by purchasing power parity — a vastly over-optimistic prediction, but shocking nonetheless.

This isn’t rocket science. Voting to cut vital technology and infrastructure budgets – especially in the strategic advanced energy industry – should be equated with supporting Chinese economic dominance, plain and simple. Even Ronald Reagan recognized the importance of these budgets and once declared: “I’ve urged Congress to devote more money to research… It is an indispensable investment in America’s future… Some say that we can’t afford it, that we’re too strapped for cash. Well, leadership means making hard choices, even in an election year.”

The television ads practically write themselves.

This isn’t to imply that no groups have ratcheted up the competitive analysis on China; my colleagues and I did so in 2009 with “Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant,” as did the Pew Foundation and other groups. But there is still no concerted political and policy strategy to put this analysis to good use.

Of course, the neoliberals and cosmopolitans will balk and urge against such competitive and hard-hitting tactics – never mind the fact that China is using such measures against the U.S. on a daily basis, not only rhetorically, but with a wide variety of protectionist economic policies. In contrast, this isn’t about U.S. protectionism, but spirited competition to get our house in order and embark on a nation-building project here at home.

Those who are still committed to American leadership — Democrats and moderate Republicans alike — must recognize that “the vision thing” hasn’t worked to advance clean energy and other strategic industries. The public needs to understand the full stakes for the United States and the world if we fail to reinvest in the foundations of our economic dynamism. And what’s at stake is nothing less than the American era and international order as we know it.