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What’s an Electric Car Champion Doing in Romney's Inner Circle?

Romney advisor Dan Senor says that traditional oil drilling is the technology of the past. The ‘real economic growth’ is in cleantech and greentech.

Sep 4, 2012
Mitt Romney with Shai Agassi, CEO and founder of Better Place

Mitt Romney has vowed to drill the nation's way out of its foreign oil addiction instead of investing in clean fuel technologies—but according to Dan Senor, one of Romney's closest political advisers, that's bad economics.

Senor's 2009 bestseller, "Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle," argues that economies geared toward advancing and adopting new technologies like oil-free cars will transform entire global industries. He says economies focused on traditional oil drilling will continue to generate short-term wealth, but at the cost of innovation.

"You look at some of these countries in the Arab world that are so dependent on oil ... They're being held back by so little innovation in those sectors," Senor said last year in a lecture at the University of Rochester. "The real economic growth is coming in biotech, medical devices, cleantech, greentech, IT."

Senor's argument calls into question the Romney campaign's claim that developing all U.S. carbon energy reserves would spawn an economic resurgence.

Senor (pronounced see-nor), 41, has deep ties in the Republican party and has been advising Romney since 2006. In a recent profile, the New York Times described him as one of the "key people" shaping Romney's views on the Middle East. Last month, he was given a much broader role, as senior adviser to vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan.

Dan SenorDan SenorNews accounts of Senor almost always mention Start-Up Nation, the pocket-sized book that hypes the Israeli economy as one of the most innovative and resilient on the planet and blames the stagnation of Arab economies on their overdependence on oil. Co-authored with American-Israeli columnist Saul Singer, the book was written, at least partly, to shore up support for Israel at home. Singer is married to Senor's sister, Wendy Senor Singer, director of the Jerusalem office of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the powerful pro-Israel lobby.

In propping up Israel, however, the book exposes a glaring irony for Romney and the entire GOP—that Senor's shining example of Israel's economic vitality is the country's commitment to get itself, and the world, off oil through electric cars.

"Is there anything more important?" Israeli President Shimon Peres is quoted as saying in Start-Up Nation.

Electric cars have been slow to take off in the United States, mainly due to their high price tag—the Chevrolet Volt costs about $40,000—and to consumers' fear that the batteries will run out of electricity mid-drive. In 2009, President Obama pledged to put a million plug-in cars on U.S. roads by 2015, but only about 55,000 such vehicles are cruising around today. 

During his first presidential run in 2007, Romney said the U.S. needs to invest in electric vehicles and other non-oil alternatives to reduce the country's dependence on oil. 

Recently, however, he has called electric cars an "idea whose time has not yet come" and "a technology that people aren't interested in."

In obvious contrast to Romney and other GOP leaders, Senor's book and recent lectures gush over Better Place, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup that is building the world's first network of electric cars in Israel. The firm's Israeli-born founder, software magnate Shai Agassi, is portrayed as the epitome of the moonshot-thinking Israeli entrepreneur.

"I think he has a good shot at changing the world—or at least making it a better place," Senor has said. Neither Senor nor the Romney campaign returned requests seeking comment for this story.

In a telephone interview from Jerusalem, Singer, Senor's co-author and brother-in-law, said, "I'm sure Dan is very supportive of energy independence, and I think electric cars are a big piece of that puzzle." He said he doesn't not know the specifics of Romney's energy plan.

Dan Senor Emerges as Key Emissary to Israel

In a detailed account last month, the Jewish magazine Tablet described Senor's career path, which now straddles the Wall Street-Washington divide, as "itinerant and mostly accidental." It began with an internship on the Hill in the 1990s, where he caught the eye of William Kristol, editor of the conservative magazine, The Weekly Standard. In 2009, the pair started the Foreign Policy Initiative, a think tank, with Robert Kagan, a neoconservative historian.

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