John Broder writes an article about the demise of cap and trade as the go-to Democratic policy for dealing with climate change. But I think he’s talking more about the phrase than the concept.

Today, the concept is in wide disrepute, with opponents effectively branding it “cap and tax,” and Tea Party followers using it as a symbol of much of what they say is wrong with Washington.

Mr. Obama dropped all mention of cap and trade from his current budget. And the sponsors of a Senate climate bill likely to be introduced in April, now that Congress is moving past health care, dare not speak its name.

“I don’t know what ‘cap and trade’ means,” Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, said last fall in introducing his original climate change plan.

It’s true that the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman proposal prices carbon in different ways than cap and trade. But there remains a cap and trade program from utilities. And the cap stays in place.

Cap and trade was another neoliberal idea that started on the right as a way to use market forces to lower greenhouse gas emissions. If it goes away I’m not going to be entirely upset, although I think there’s little chance of a carbon tax swooping in to replace it (though the Cantwell-Collins “Cap and dividend” approach may catch on). But allow me to happily agree with Chris Bowers that cap and trade, the phrase, died because the liberals who put it into play got spooked by conservative noise machine attacks.

I am not a huge fan of “cap and trade,” especially in a system where the permits are simply given away rather than auctioned. However, for greenwashing, third way type organizations like Environmental Defense to abandon it because they thought the term became too polarizing is a demonstration of their own meekness in the face of conservative opposition. “Cap and trade” polled just fine […]

Even leaving aside the polling showing that “cap and trade” polled pretty well, it is difficult to imagine how a term can becoming polarizing when virtually no one is thinking about it. In the open-ended national priorities polls from CBS in February and January (and open-ended national priority polls are the only national priority polls that actually tell us what people are thinking), 2% or less of the country identified energy or global warming as the top priority facing the country. How, exactly, could cap and trade become a polarizing concept when few people are even paying attention to the legislative process that cap and trade is associated with?

I think the answer is that the polarization came entirely inside Washington, where the enviro groups live, and they didn’t have the fortitude to defend the concept. So off it went.

David Dayen

David Dayen