Romney: Hot For Cold Fusion?

Mitt Romney hasn't been giving many on-the-record extended interviews, so when he does -- as he did earlier this week with the Washington Examiner editorial board -- they get pored over and dissected like holy epistles. In this case, some Romney detractors are trying to make issues out of two things that I don't think amount to anything: first, Romney saying that he wouldn't recommend the Massachusetts health care system, in toto, for any other states; and second, Romney saying that he has a "limited understanding of the economy." (The first I think is consistent with what he has said beginning with the rewritten paperback version of No Apology; the second I think is a silly distortion out of context.)

I did, however, find something interesting in the transcript. I've bolded it in this exchange:

Q: What role should government have in promoting certain industries or economic activities such as homeownership, or manufacturing, renewable energy or fossil fuel energy, exports, or just advanced technology? What sort of subsidies and incentives do you favor? You had some of these in Massachusetts, I know.

ROMNEY: Very limited -- my answer to your first question. I’m not an advocate of industrial policy being formed by a government. I do believe in the power of free markets, and when the government removes the extraordinary burdens that it puts on markets, why I think markets are more effective at guiding a prosperous economy than is the government.

So for instance, I would not be investing massive dollars in electric car companies in California. I think Tesla and Fisker are delightful-looking vehicles, but I somehow imagine that Toyota, Nissan, and even General Motors will produce a more cost-effective electric car than either Tesla or Fisker. I think it is bad policy for us to be investing hundreds of millions of dollars in specific companies and specific technologies, and developing those technologies.

I do believe in basic science. I believe in participating in space. I believe in analysis of new sources of energy. I believe in laboratories, looking at ways to conduct electricity with -- with cold fusion, if we can come up with it. It was the University of Utah that solved that. We somehow can’t figure out how to duplicate it.

But basic science, in my view, is a way that research can encourage our entire economy. And so, for instance, in Michigan, some years ago -- I think it was in 2007 -- I spoke there and said, you know, I think we ought to embark upon an effort to do analysis on energy research, transportation research, materials research. But again, basic research which could then be either purchased by or licensed by companies foreign and domestic.

It is unusual, to say the least, that a campaigning Presidential candidate would know anything about cold fusion, let alone recalling off the top of his head the university that conducted an experiment more than two decades ago. It is even odder that a campaigning Presidential candidate would voluntarily cite, in an on-the-record interview, the promise of a science considered by most physicists to be a total hoax. Frankly, you might expect it from Newt Gingrich, not Romney.

This surely would have gone unnoticed, had there not been someone -- me -- sitting at the unusual nexus of three demographics: A) people who regularly read full transcripts of Mitt Romney interviews; B) people who were slightly nerdy 20-something-year-old policy and science geeks in 1989, who got caught up in the brief but fascinating hoopla over cold fusion; and C) people who follow Massachusetts politics very, very closely for a living.

Only people in group A would have seen Romney's remarks. Only those in A and B would have known what he was talking about. And only those of us in all three groups would have slapped their forehead and cried out: "Bruce Tarr got to Romney!!!"

Tarr is the Massachusetts state senate Minority Leader -- something of a ceremonial position in the Commonwealth. And for reasons that may or may not be related to his having been a 20-something-year-old policy and science geek in 1989, he's a big cold fusion buff. Probably the biggest, if not the only, cold-fusion buff in American elected office today.

In fact, the E-Cat World blog calls Tarr the first politician to publicly extol the potential of Italian physicist Andrea Rossi's (possible) breakthrough cold-fusion product.

If you have no idea what E-Cat is, or who Andrea Rossi is... well, then you have some idea of just how bizarre it was for Mitt Romney to be pulling cold fusion references out of his ass.

In any event, just last month, on Tarr's invitation, Rossi visited Boston to consider basing production of his cold-fusion product here in the Bay State -- if, of course, it turns out to be for real. As a columnist for Wired's UK web site put it, it's either "the breakthrough of the century or the scam of the decade." The heavy betting is on scam, which is why you haven't seen much reporting on this potentially world-changing development. Even Tarr (who I've been unable to reach) is maintaining a healthy skepticism, I'm told.

It's hard to imagine there is no connection between Rossi's recent visit, and Romney's startling interest in an obscure, most likely non-existent energy. The exact connection remains a mystery for the moment. Tarr has conspicuously not endorsed Romney, but they may still have ended up chatting at some revent local event. More likely, I think, it came through some other GOP state legislator, or perhaps an area scientist, academic leader, or investor who met Rossi during his Statehouse visit.

On the other hand, maybe Romney doesn't know anything about Rossi's claims -- after all, in the interview he seems to be unaware of any claims to have replicated the (long since discounted) University of Utah results. If that's the case, it's just downright freaky weird that Romney brought up cold fusion. 

The even greater mystery is why it popped out of Romney's mouth during the Examiner interview. Romney is a pretty disciplined talking-points interviewee, and I can't imagine cold fusion was ever recommended in rehearsals.

On the other hand, if Republicans really are looking for an "all-of-the-above" approach to energy, as Sarah Palin likes to put it, Romney is now officially their guy. If you think drilling in the Everglades is thinking outside the box, check out Mitt "Stone-Cold Fusion" Romney!

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