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The politics of climate change - Why Democrats should stand up now

by Jerome a Paris Sun Oct 8th, 2006 at 10:23:34 AM EST

Yesterday's diary by Patrick Kennedy, An Inconvenient Truth - Dems Still Don't Get It drew a lot of heated comment for its title, deemed needlessly provocative or insulting, and even more commentary about how it was more important to win the election first and then to take action.

I wrote in the comments why I think that such a strategy is a tragic mistake, and it was my intention to write a full diary on this again. That was given a big boost when I saw the article in today's NYT about Republicans who want to raise the gas tax.

So let le say it here starkly: Dems are so damn terrified to lose elections that they forget to actually stand for anything, and end up being an unattractive alternative - and losing the issues to smarter - or more cynical - Republicans.

The non-nonsense position of the Democrats is expressed in this comment by DHinMI:

I don't see any Dems saying they won't do anything about global warming.  In fact, when asked I see lots of Dems defending the science on the issue.  But it's not an emotional enough issue with enough voters to make it a sensible issue to highlight.

You're correct in distinguishing, at least implicitly, the difference between what the Dems emphasize in an election season and what they've indicated would be a priority for them once they hold power.

The argument goes as follows: having Republicans in power is such a catastrophe that there is nothing more important than getting them out and bringing in a Democratic majority. In order to do this, better to pound on the current issues which hurt the Republicans (Iraq, Foley, corruption, etc...) rather than try to raise issues which (i) have not much traction with the electorate, (ii) give ways to the Republicans to attack Democrats, and (iii) will not be heard anyway because the Dems do not have a very big megaphone.

The addendum is that, yes, Dems do care about the issue (what reasonable person wouldn't?), and they will act once in power.

In my view, this is a profoundly misguided approach, in many ways.

  • the first point is the one I made in reply to DHinMI:

    If they did not make it a priority before, they won't make it a priority after.

    it's not an emotional enough issue with enough voters to make it a sensible issue to highlight.

    Why would this be different once in power? Why risk political capital then on something which is not an issue?

    So the worst abuse of the Republicans will be stopped, which is nice and fine, and populist stuff like windfall profits taxes on oil companies may become the topic du jour, but no big plan will be pushed, because there isn't one and "the public isn't ready for one". And meanwhile the situation gets worse.

    The recently presented plan for the first 100 hours of a Democratic majority by Nancy Pelosi includes action on lobbyists, 9/11, the deficit, minimum wages, healthcare costs. Not a word about energy, not a word about climate change. Can we really expect the issue to come up at all later on? The agenda's pretty ambitious as it is already, and I'd be pretty surprised if it did.

    Gas prices are down, so energy is not a hot topic in the short term, and thus it will be ignored again until it forces its way onto the public consciousness. Only, that time, Dems will be in charge and will be blamed for it.

  • The second point is that this is a GOOD issue for the Democrats to play up. Energy policy neatly ties up Republican incompetence and corruption, the economy, the War in Iraq, offshoring. It can be tied up to every major political issue. Iraq? Let's use American smarts rather than foreign oil. Corruption and pork? Let's make transparency of lobbying and of subsidies an overriding goal, and shine that light on the big energy companies.  Offshoring? Develop sustainable jobs in local communities, using decentralised energy and shorter and sturdier supply chains.

    People do care about the environment, and would be willing to make efforts if they see these leading somewhere, and with a direct benefit to them or to their children, and not just as pointless sacrifice to save some unknown insect. Having a comprehensive plan on this would show an optimistic, forward looking, dynamic face (technology leadership, jobs, more real security, better environment, etc...), and it is a perfect contrast to the politics of greed, denial and fear of the Republicans.

    Focusing on energy and climate change allows to demonstrate a commitment to real values without ignoring the other issues of the day. It shows trust in the capacity of Americans to mobilise and to be responsible. It is principled, it is optimistic, and, above all, it demonstrates leadership. Show Americans what is at stake; contrast the short termist approach of the Republicans with the long term future outlined by the Democratic plans, and stand by your ideas even as they are slimed, as they will be.

  • The third point is that ignoring the topic will let Republicans set the agenda, and we know that this will lead to the worst outcomes.

    Expect energy security to be used as an argument to drill in protected areas, and to weaken environmental regulation (so that big energy companies can exploit - and waste - more American land or coast for a few more months of supply.

    Expect more bellicose diplomacy towards Iran, Venezuela and Russia;

    Expect energy price increases to be used as an excuse to authorise again large scale development of the coal and nuclear industries with less stringent regulatory requirements and more subsidies;

    Expect carbon taxes, environmental regulations and other similar mechanisms to be called 'artificial (and unbearable) burdens' on ordinary Americans, and fought as such, instead of being treated as the visualisation of costs already borne in non-monetary ways (health effects and nuisance from pollution, military budgets and military deaths, debt burden on future generations, depletion of rare resources, destruction of New Orleans, etc...);

    And expect also the kind of unexpected curveballs thrown by Greenspan and others as reported in the NYT article:

    In late September, as [Mr Greenspan] spoke to a group of business executives in Massachusetts, a question was posed as to whether he'd like to see an increase in the federal gasoline tax, which has stood at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993. "Yes, I would," Mr. Greenspan responded with atypical clarity. "That's the way to get consumption down. It's a national security issue."

    Mr. Greenspan isn't the only Republican-aligned economist to have discovered, or rediscovered, a fondness for higher energy taxes since leaving government service. N. Gregory Mankiw, the Harvard economist who served as chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers from 2003 to 2005, favored a higher gas tax before going to Washington, and has been banging the drum loudly for it since he left. On his blog, Mr. Mankiw has formed the Pigou Club, named for Arthur C. Pigou, the British economist credited with introducing the notion that taxes could be used to correct imperfections in the market. The roster of what Mr. Mankiw calls "economists and pundits with the good sense to have publicly advocated higher Pigovian taxes, such as gasoline taxes or carbon taxes," includes some of the usual suspects -- Paul Krugman, a columnist for The New York Times, and Al Gore, for example -- as well as unusual suspects like Gary S. Becker, the economics professor and Nobel laureate at the University of Chicago.

    Andrew A. Samwick, chief economist on the Council of Economic Advisers from July 2003 to June 2004, and a professor of economics at Dartmouth, is a member in good standing. So is Martin S. Feldstein, the intellectual godfather of a generation of Republican economists.

    Now, the article is also about the discipline of the Republican message, and how these "unorthodox" messages are given by people out of power, but that precisely reveals the brilliance of the move: while they officially deny such plans, they are also occupying the ground, and laying the groundwork for whatever Republican message the bigwigs decide will be the line of the party at any time. By linking gas taxes and national security, they will be able to embrace it without any embarrassment should the case arise. And they prevent Democrats, who barely speak on the topic, from claiming the territory.

    Is it contradictory? Of course? But as nobody points it out loudly enough, they will appear to dominate the issue by occupying the ground (including unexpected one like gas taxes), associating energy policy with their "values" and then doing the usual pork-fest policies. You can be sure that a Republican gas tax will come with a twist, like exemptions for small entrepreneurs and company cars, that will please their base, kill the issue for Dems while preventing the policy from actually working.

Everybody that knows anything about the topics of energy and climate change knows that we must act, and that quite substantial changes are needed, and that it requires a sustained, consistent effort. It is also highly likely that if we don't start that effort on our own, reality will force us to do it, but in much less favorable conditions, and the burden will likely be unfairly shared.

The Democrats should thus own that issue, by talking about it and making it the centerpiece of their policies. As I wrote above, it's very easy anyway to link all the hot issues of the day to it - but that way you set the framework both to analyse the problem and to solve it, you show leadership, compassion, vision and political courage. It should be the permanent background of the campaign.

Shy away from it, and you will pay the price, politically, very soon. It is absurd to expect Democrats to do anything significant about climate change and energy policies if they have hardly talked about it (again, a windfall tax on oil company profits, subsidies/pork for biofuels or anything similarly populist and painless is not "significant").

Democrats: talk about the future. Show the way. Stand for something. Lead the country out of the current hole. It requires more than staying out of the way while the Republicans self destruct in their orgy of corruption.


It's about US politics and only partly relevant here, so I'm not posting this on the front page, but I expect it might inspire some discussions here on how to approach the topic in Europe.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sun Oct 8th, 2006 at 10:25:09 AM EST
Great diary!

"So let le say it here starkly: Dems are so damn terrified to lose elections that they forget to actually stand for anything, and end up being an unattractive alternative - and losing the issues to smarter - or more cynical - Republicans."

Nail hit squarely on head. However, as you point out tackling the energy/global warming problem in a comprehensive way is daunting.  We are already being bombarded with TV adds by the coal industry emphasizing how much coal the US has and how clean the industry has become.  The Democrats couldn't fix the other big problem (health care) last time around, so how can we expect them to formulate and popularize an honest plan that deals with energy use and global warming in the face of much tougher resistance.

The reality, I fear, is that they will not even try.  Not just because it would be difficult or unpopular with constituents, but because the Democrats are only marginally less corrupted by the energy and business lobbys than the Republicans and thus are truly incapable.  A sad and inconvenient truth.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears

by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Sun Oct 8th, 2006 at 01:22:53 PM EST
A gas tax still remains one of the most economically regressive ways of funding a redesigned transportation and energy structure.

(From discussion of your post on DK.)

Step one is to get this part of the left on board...

by asdf on Sun Oct 8th, 2006 at 02:35:34 PM EST
Query:  What is the minimum production/selling price a European refinery must recieve to stay in business?

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Sun Oct 8th, 2006 at 04:04:10 PM EST
I agree with your fatalism that the dems will enver do anything because they are weak nd lacking political courage.

But this is a Euro site, so let's deal with the wider point of how this can be played into Europe. I think to a greater extent it's an easier sell. All of our natural fuel reserves have been exhausted/mismanaged into uselessness and so we are now prey to world markets in a period where things are only going to get worse. Plus I'm not sure we have such a cultural investment in cars, so encouraging public transport makes more sense to us.

I  think that makes everything easier. It's my view that most of the electorate know these things and so would be willing to listen to politicians who offer them believable solutions. Everybody is now beginning to realise that airflight needs to be taxed. That our previous cheap energy era is now over.

What they're not willing to buy are easy answers, eg nuclear energy a la Blair is simply unbelievable

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Mon Oct 9th, 2006 at 07:22:35 AM EST

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