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Electrifying U.S. should start now

Republicans have turned against the very mechanism they foisted on environmentalists — cap-and-trade.

Distraught about regulation, Republicans urged this market mechanism to reduce carbon pollution, and GOPers like Rob Portman have been chastised in recent days for their hypocrisy in attacking a plan they espoused just a few years ago.

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Republican recalcitrance need not block all progress, however. Electrification of transportation could enable us to eliminate three-quarters of the oil we use in our cars and trucks, create nearly 2 million jobs and significantly reduce carbon emissions. Perhaps more important, because this critical component of a clean-energy economy is backed by Republicans, Democrats and independents alike, it is a vision that can be realized starting now.

Voters see electric cars as a critical transformative step forward. In a poll we conducted with our Republican colleagues at Ayres McHenry for the Electrification Coalition (none of whom bear responsibility for what I write here), likely voters said by almost two to one that they want auto companies to move to new technologies rather than try to improve the internal combustion engine. Nearly three-quarters believe that American know-how can produce a safe, quality electric car that can meet their transportation needs.

Voters see electric vehicles not just as a better way for the nation but as an appealing alternative for their own households. Two-thirds believe both they and others they know would be likely to purchase electric cars should they become available.

The clean-energy economy comes with the promise of achieving three goals, all of which are vitally important to the electorate — creating jobs, reducing our dependence on foreign oil and reducing pollution. Americans understand intuitively that electrification of transportation will move us toward all three objectives. Eighty-four percent believe electrification will reduce pollution, 79 percent expect it will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and 71 percent foresee job creation.

Despite the popularity of electric cars and the benefits that will accrue to America, transformation of major economic sectors is rarely achieved by market forces alone. Federal subsidies for highway construction helped spur the growth of gasoline-powered cars; subsidies for building airports fueled the demand for air travel.

Changes in policy are also required to invigorate the market for electric cars.

Fortunately, this is an arena where partisans from all sides can, and have, come together for the good of the country. Democrats, Republicans and independents all support the policy changes required to achieve the goal.

Distinguished senators from the mainstream of both parties — Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) — have co-sponsored legislation in the Senate, and voters widely back their plan.

Seventy percent or more favor an immediate tax credit to consumers to offset the higher initial costs of electric vehicles and tax credits for those who install charging equipment in their homes. Nearly two-thirds favor tax incentives for those building charging stations for electric cars and a majority support loans to auto companies so they can retool factories to produce these exciting new vehicles.

After having the core elements of the legislation explained to them, 65 percent support the overall plan, with just 30 percent opposed. Republicans favor the proposal by a 14-point margin, independents by 26 points and Democrats by over 60 points.

To those for whom the national interest is insufficient, elected officials are poised to reap political rewards from advocating electric vehicles. By a 28-point margin, voters say candidates who advocate the proposal are more likely to have a vision for the future and be focused on creating jobs than those who oppose it. Similarly, by a 25-point margin, voters identify advocates of electrification as individuals who want to change the way things are done in Washington.

On electrification, the policy and the politics line up to enable a better future.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.