Burlington, Vt.–Seems everyone is climbing on the impeachment bandwagon these days–here, in Vermont, anyway. Though it is admittedly tempting to write off little Vermont (the state’s roughly 600,000 residents couldn’t make a city worthy of a professional sports franchise), it is the American epicenter of progressive political thought, so one probably ought to pay attention. As I pointed out the last time I wrote in , Vermont’s national politicians (Dean, Leahy, Jeffords, Sanders) cut a very high profile, and they get their ideas from somewhere.
The impeachment thing started at one town meeting in Newfane where the citizens voted, 121 to 29, to instruct Vermont’s single congressional delegate to introduce the matter on the floor of the House of Representatives. Since then, six other towns have joined the movement, and leaders of the state’s Democratic Party signed an impeachment resolution. In the latest development, some seventy state legislators signed a letter urging Congress to impeach the president. No mobs gathering on the green, carrying muskets and pitchforks. Not so far, anyway. But these people are serious. One of them intends to hand copies of the resolutions passed by the seven Vermont towns to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert on May 1. (Not to worry–the speaker will no doubt be too busy spending money to take action on the resolutions.)
According to a spokesman, Vermont’s lone representative in the House, Bernie Sanders, supports “any effort to investigate the alleged misdeeds of the Bush administration.” But, he added, “As long as the Republicans control Congress, there won’t be any meaningful oversight.”
Sanders has spent a political lifetime defining himself as an independent and progressive. In the old days–three or four years ago, that is–he would have been a dead cinch to lead the charge for impeachment, even if he knew it was a lost cause. In fact, especially if he thought it was a lost cause. Sanders relished the role of solitary fighter and defender of the little guy.
But Sanders is running for the Senate in November’s election, and he has no doubt learned, after eight terms in Washington, that you need to pick your battles. Leading a charge for impeachment proceedings puts you in the same bind as a dog chasing a car–what do you do if you catch it? So Sanders picked another high profile fight, one he couldn’t lose. He came out against high gasoline prices, and he went on CNN to make his case.
The progressive argument inevitably relies on bogeymen. Once they were Rockefellers and Melons and the rest of the Wall Street Wild Bunch. They wore frock coats and stovepipe hats, smoked cigars, and exploited children. Today, they run Exxon Mobil and “receive obscene levels of compensation.” Not much has changed.
Among other measures, Sanders called for President Bush to convene an “emergency energy summit,” during which “congressional leaders, oil industry executives, and consumer advocates,” would try to figure what to do about the “soaring price of gasoline.”
Three-dollar gasoline, of course, gets most people a lot more brassed off than a few NSA telephone intercepts. And many would consider five-dollar gasoline to be stronger grounds for impeachment than going to war on the basis of flawed intelligence. Make it ten dollars, and you’re talking armed mobs.
There are, of course, several theories to account for the high price of oil. Some, like the “peak oil” scenario, are darkly, elegantly prophetic. The more conventional explanations look at the furiously rising demand in China and India coupled with the difficulty of providing new supplies. It is a lot easier to burn gasoline than it is to find the oil, refine it, and get it to the pump. There is also the possibility that this is largely a speculative phenomenon–a “bubble,” in the trendy parlance, caused by geopolitical fears (that would be “Iran”) and a lust to get in with a few contracts for $70 dollar crude before it goes all the way to $100.
It’s a interesting question, to be sure, but an energy summit of the kind Sanders envisions would be as illuminating as those old gatherings of fat Communists in Moscow where everyone listened to speeches about the progress of the latest five-year plan and the worldwide revolution, and clapped very strenuously at all the applause lines.
Sanders, of course, blames the oil companies for the high price of oil. Among his short-term solutions to the problem are a windfall profits tax and “reducing the high levels of CEO compensation in the oil industry.” For sheer pointless, predictable banality this matches anything those fat Communists were obliged to applaud. With an electorate feeling everything from frustration to outright fury with the status quo–especially as it applies to the cost of gasoline–you’d think the “radicals” could come up with solutions that were, well, a bit more radical. The Sanders’s solutions depend predictably on government action. The government does not discover, transport, or refine oil, so its influence on the supply side is limited to incentives. And a “windfall profits tax” does not exactly qualify as an incentive.
Government does already tax the living hell out of gasoline. So if Bernie and the progressives wanted to help out the strapped commuter during the present jam, they could push for an elimination of gas taxes. It is, after all, a regressive tax, the kind that falls heaviest on the little guy that Sanders is so vigilantly looking out for. But progressives don’t do tax relief.
Sanders wants all sorts of things to come out of his summit. Included are lower prices and more conservation, which is to say, he wants to come up with hot ice. Nothing inspires people to cut down on how much they drive like paying sixty bucks to fill up the tank. If Sanders could force the price of gasoline down by fiat, people would buy more gas guzzlers and drive them down the driveway to pick up the newspaper.
All this is so wearily obvious. You expect more from a serious man–a man who considers himself one of the true mavericks in American politics–until you remember where he comes from. When it comes to energy and conservation, Sanders’ constituents are more confused than he is.
Vermonters, of course, love conservation, alternative energy, and all things green. They hate global warming, nuclear power, fossil fuels, and all exploitative technologies. So, when given a chance to vote up or down on wind power, they would go for the green, right? Nope. On the last town meeting day, three towns voted “no” on putting windmill farms on the ridges overlooking their homes. There was, of course, an environmentalist tone to the arguments against windmills. People were “concerned” about the “visual pollution” and the effect on “bird and flying mammal populations.” Then there was the noise. Some of these people were sincere, but others were probably thinking about property values. Whatever their motives, they voted down the windfarms. So, in the absence of these “alternative” sources, how will Vermonters get their electricity?
Conservation? Perhaps, but Vermonters already consume electricity at a slightly higher rate, per capita, than the average American. They pride themselves on their environmental sensitivity, so we’ll have to assume they are already doing everything they can.
Other sources? In the big scheme of things, Vermont, being small, doesn’t need much electricity. But the most certain bet in America is that Vermont will never permit a coal or gas burning power plant to be built and operated within its borders. Vermont utilities could buy power from out-of-state producers, except that then Vermonters would be subsidizing the production of greenhouse gases and acid rain.
Nuclear power? As a matter of fact, there is a nuclear plant in the southwestern corner of the state. It produces one-third of the electricity consumed by Vermonters and at a fixed rate well below market. The plant has a good safety record and provides, in addition to electricity, lots of well-paying jobs. So, naturally, progressives in Vermont hate the plant with a passion that burns like a hot blue flame. They would shut it down tomorrow, if they could, and they are certain to fight the upcoming relicensing decision. They want that plant gone, the site on which it stands plowed over, and flowers planted on the earth it formerly defiled. They might get their way. It is Vermont, after all. Then we’ll really get to see what conservation and alternative energy sources can do.
The Right was once routinely accused of being enthralled by simplistic solutions to complex problems, but the Vermont progressives have lapped them. Sanders seems to think that the solution to high gas prices is to pass a law against them; the man is from Vermont, where that sort of thing passes for thought.
So let’s hear it for the progressive agenda: Impeach Bush and cheap gas, too.
Almost as good as Free beer and wide roads, don’t you think? Works in Vermont.
–Geoffrey Norman writes for NRO and other publications.