Al Gore was recently asked by Tom Friedman if he thought the discussion of climate change and renewable energy was expanding or remained confined to the same small demographic. Strange bedfellows Mary Matalin and James Carville, keynoters at the closing general session of Solar Power International 2010 (SPI), suggested an answer to Friedman’s question. 

Republican Matalin, adviser to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, and Democrat Carville, part of President Bill Clinton’s brain trust, remain -- despite their recent relocation to New Orleans -- on intimate terms with behind-the-scenes Washington.

Announced to be bringing inside dope on the brutal political realities facing solar and other renewable industries in the mid-term elections, their celebrity nevertheless failed to noticeably boost the SPI general session turnout, perhaps because of thesolarindustry’s meager appetite for news about the brutal political realities facing it.

Carville joked about the Democrats’ November fate. Republican candidates are, he said, “some entertaining people. You know with one dressing up like a witch [Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell] and another dressing up like a Nazi [Ohio Republican Congressional candidate Rich Iott], you’re doing pretty good.”

Widely predicted Democratic losses across the nation could cost them control of both the House and the Senate. That bodes ill for the advancement of renewables-supportive policy legislation like a national Renewable Electricity Standard (RES), requiring the nation’s utilities to obtain a portion of their power from renewable sources. It would also mean the end of any action that might help prevent the advance of global climate change.

“There’s a hurricane coming,” Carville said. “It’s not gonna change course. It’s gonna hit the Democratic party on election day.” But, Carville asked, “Is it gonna be a Category Five? In which case, you lose everything. You’re wiped out. 1994. Is it a Category Four, where you lose most things but some things sort of survive? Or is it gonna be a Category Three, where you lose a lot but the structure remains intact, and you keep a majority in the House and the Senate?”

Carville said the situation is still shifting. “A month ago it was a Five. Two weeks ago it was a pretty strong Four. Today, it’s a weak Four.” His colorful description belied his tactic. By reframing the argument, if the Democrats just maintain control of the Senate, they can claim a sort of victory.

Matalin handled this carefully. “Most handicappers,” she said, “even the thoughtful ones, have a takeover of the House by Republicans by somewhere between 40 and 50 seats.” She called that “unprecedented.” On the other hand, she said, “Handicappers would still not predict a Senate takeover. But that there are as many seats in play in the strange situations that they are says something about the zeitgeist.”

She predicted that Republican Carly Fiorina would beat incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer in the California Senate race.

“If Boxer loses, it’s a Five,” Carville said quickly.

Matalin and Carville agreed that one race to watch is the fight for the Colorado Senate seat, where appointed incumbent Democrat Michael Bennett is running just behind Republican challenger Ken Buck.

“If I knew the outcome of the Colorado Senate race,” Carville said, “I would know a lot about the election.”

“I agree Colorado is illustrative,” Matalin hedged, not wanting to provide even a small opportunity for Democrats to gloat after November 3, “but not necessarily dispositive.”

Matalin and Carville both agreed on three points. The first was that putting up rooftop solar panels is a good idea.

“Magnificent,” was the way Matalin described the Brad Pitt/Global Green Make It Right sustainable housing project in New Orleans. “They were initially quite expensive but over a short period of time,” she said, “they are selling energy back to the city.”

Carville said the solar panels Matalin recently had installed on their New Orleans home make good economic sense with Louisiana incentives.

The second point they agreed on was that the way to sell solar and the other renewable energies is to emphasize that support of the renewable industries with smart incentives will provide domestic revenues and jobs.

There is a way, Matalin and Carville agreed, to win the fight for renewables policies that until now, as someone said, has resembled the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. “Repackage it and call it something else,” Carville said of the vital Treasury Grant provision of the Recovery Act.

“I agree,” Matalin said. “Don’t say recovery, don’t say stimulus, don’t say earmarks, say job-creating.” She added something very important. “The type of Republicans that are going to win,” she said, “get innovation, they get entrepreneurship, they get the decentralization of solar and they get that they have to deliver.”

The third point on which Matalin and Carville agreed was not explicit but was the answer to the question Tom Friedman asked Al Gore. Like the larger public, Matalin and Carville are beginning to see the inherent economic value of renewable energy and sustainable ways and agree those things can be politically viable with the right methods and language.

“Your future,” Carville said, “is going to be determined by politicians. And your competitors, the coal people, the petroleum people, the nuclear people, they’re all in this, they’re all over Washington. I would urge you to make your case. You have a very good case to make.”