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Tea party, wonky White House messaging sank cap and trade -- Van Jones

Story updated at 7:23 p.m. EST.

LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif. -- Former White House staff member Van Jones surfaced here yesterday to discuss how the Obama administration's message machine may have slipped during negotiations over climate change and energy legislation in the last Congress.

In what were arguably his most revealing remarks to date on the topic, Jones said the White House and congressional Democrats failed to take the upstart tea-party movement seriously enough following the health care debate and leading up to Republicans dominating the 2010 midterm elections.

Jones noted that the consensus over a cap-and-trade market for greenhouse gas emissions had gone from something of a political shoo-in after the 2008 election to all but dead in less than three years. But he did not blame environmentalists or the policy concept itself.

Instead, he credited "a right-wing populist movement" that in his mind somehow managed to reframe the debate and "won the argument" over the scope of government involvement in carbon emissions regulation, health care and immigration.

"It is not about cap and trade," he said, during Fortune magazine's Brainstorm Green conference here. "It's about whether or not the government should be doing anything."

He added, "24 months ago, nobody in this room had heard of the tea party."

Jones also blamed what he called "single-issue myopia" among White House policy experts who were intently focused on moving progressive policies through Congress. His point was the administration may have focused too much on the wonky side of politics -- "the head space"-- rather than the more emotional big-picture messaging that helped sweep Obama into office.

"The minute we got to Washington, D.C., we moved from the heart space and the outside game aggressively into the head space," he said. "We had very, very smart ideas, but we didn't have emotional resonance."

That lack of resonance, in Jones' view, is why the tea party and conservatives have been able to push climate legislation back into the closet. Smart policy ideas do not cut it, he said, when Americans have difficulty following "the narrative of this clean energy revolution."

So now what? Jones said he would like to see Obama and other Democrats tell a better story about clean technologies and how they might relate to red-state voters who seem to view renewable energy and electric cars as pet projects of the left. And attempts by the president to create a "Sputnik moment," he suggested, may not be big or clear enough for the public to swallow.

Solar power, for instance, is viewed as "hippie power," according to Jones, when the narrative might tell a completely different tale.

"This is not hippie power," he said. "This is cowboy power. This is rancher power. This is farmer power."

Stressing the point, he said lawmakers have to tie renewable technologies to local economic benefits and tangible issues like national security.

"We're not going to build any wind farms in the middle of New York City," he said. "We're going to build them out in the red states.

"That is a very different kind of conversation than we have been having," he added.

'Don't cry for me'

Jones, now a senior fellow at the liberal Center For American Progress, also managed to laugh a bit about his departure from the White House in 2009. Jones was forced to resign his position as special adviser for green jobs after conservatives linked him to past comments associated with a Marxist group in the 1990s and a petition he's alleged to have signed about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Jones ruefully said he "had a great time" during his six months in the White House but added that he had learned not to "say something too colorful" during public appearances ever since his departure.

"I had a rough exit," he said, with a laugh. "Don't cry for me."

[Following initial publication of this story, Gena Madow of Fenton Communications contacted Greenwire to say Jones "never saw, signed or endorsed any statement indicating" the 9/11 attacks were carried about by anyone other than Osama bin Laden and members of al-Qaida. "Six years ago, a group claiming to represent 9/11 families asked for his support and then attached his name to abhorrent language that they never showed him," she said.]

As for his experience working for Obama, Jones said he continues to be impressed with the president's intelligence and has more respect than ever for people who work at the White House.

"Inside those four walls, it is serious business," he said. "The level of peril this country is in cannot be overstated."

Looking forward, Jones sees himself continuing to work on environmental issues to bridge what he calls mutual cynicism on the left and right about opposing viewpoints. He pledged to work for middle ground between free markets and an acceptable amount of government regulation.

"We don't want a nanny state, but we do believe that government can solve problems," he said, acknowledging his progressive politics. "It's going to be up to us to better articulate and to own it as an American story."

Sullivan is based in San Francisco.