cover of "The Waxman Report"The other day I recounted the fascinating story of how Rep. Henry Waxman and his allies in the House spent a decade working to defend and strengthen the Clean Air Act. Waxman has reportedly said that those curious about the current climate/energy struggle should study the CAA fight.

So what lessons can be learned? And do they apply today?

1. Marathon, not a sprint

One thing that’s clear from the CAA chapter and Waxman’s book as a whole is that legislative victories do not come quickly, or all at once. Behind every advance is years of painstaking, persistent, often frustrating labor.

Waxman likely sees the climate fight the same way. (That is the theme of Charles Homans’ excellent profile of Waxman from this spring.) The appropriate comparison for ACES is not the Clean Air Act as it exists today but the Clean Air Act as passed in 1970, in all its weakness and insufficiency. ACES is the first battle in what promises to be a long war; the job of consolidating gains and seeking new opportunities doesn’t end.

Of course, the problem with climate change is that there isn’t a ton of time left. Thousands of people prematurely dying from inhaling smog is, however inhumane and immoral, sustainable. Things could go on like that indefinitely. But climate change is heading toward what many scientists fear are tipping points beyond which further changes will be unstoppable and irreversible. Then it really will be out of our hands. With such enormous pressure, is there time for a multi-decade fight?

2. Find allies wherever you can

At various points in the long fight, help comes from unexpected quarters, including Republicans and conservative Democrats. (At one crucial junction in the CAA battle, Waxman fought off an attack by cosponsoring an amendment with Republican Bill Dannemeyer, whose proposed solution to the AIDS crisis was to quarantine gays on an island in the South Pacific.) Even where the ideological gaps are huge, there are individual issues where opportunistic alliances can be made. Waxman never holds a grudge; his talent is relentlessly identifying and exploiting these opportunities.

But the tone of the book changes somewhat when discussing events after 1994 — that’s when a particularly radical group of Republicans took over the majority in the House and Senate. Democrats didn’t regain control of both houses until 2006. In the intervening 12 years, Republicans did not adopt Waxman’s strategy of opportunistic alliances, or any alliances at all. They enforced rigid party discipline, completely shut Democrats out, manipulated and ignored procedural rules and precedents, and generally encouraged an atmosphere of rancor and knife fighting that still hasn’t faded.

And that’s just it, what seems different now than during the CAA fight. As Harold Meyerson puts it in an op-ed about the healthcare fight:

Problem is, bipartisanship ain’t what it used to be, and for one fundamental reason: Republicans ain’t what they used to be. It’s true that there was considerable Republican congressional support, back in the day, for Social Security and Medicare. But in the ’30s, there were progressive Republicans who stood to the left of the Democrats. … In the ’60s, Rockefeller Republicans supported civil rights legislation and Medicare.

Today, no such Republicans exist. In New England and New York, historically the home of GOP moderates, Republicans occupy just two of 51 House seats. Nationally, the party is dominated by Southern neo-Dixiecrats.

Let me be somewhat injudicious and add that, perhaps in part thanks to increasing ideological homogeneity, the House Republican caucus has also gotten steadily stupider and meaner. What was once a semi-coherent ideological program has been reduced to catechisms. All that’s left in the party of Rush is mindless opposition. I mean, Joe Barton is reading the sports section.

To be fair, Waxman did manage to peel off eight Republican votes for ACES. But that’s a pretty paltry number. And those eight are getting crucified at home over their vote. There won’t be as many yeas for the final bill.

The broader and more diverse your coalition, the more leverage you have. With Republicans completely off the table, the coalition is necessarily narrow and partisan. The dynamic shifts; there are fewer wild cards. Conservative Dems know the numbers are razor thin and they hold the bill’s fate in their hands. They have all the power and Waxman’s virtually unarmed (except for the muted support of a popular president). He’s been savvy about easing fossil-state Dems on board, but it’s all been concessions to the likes of Rick Boucher (Va.) and Collin Peterson (Minn.). Republican rigidity has left him with few cards in his hand.

3. It never costs as much as they say it will

Says Waxman, “while industry claims often frame the debate, they are usually exaggerated, not accurate descriptions of the truth but tactics to stop unwanted measures, regardless of need or merit.” In story after story, on issue after issue — orphan drugs, pesticides, nutrition labels, cigarette warning labels, acid rain — big business wails that it will be driven bankrupt and the economy destroyed. Every time, legislation passes and they turn out to be wrong, because, as Waxman puts it, “good legislation works as intended.” Every time, problems are meliorated and the economy continues merrily growing. Every. Single. Time.

Despite the evidence of history, though, industry claims continue to drive the narrative. They’re back at it again on climate, with the same old dire predictions. Once again, there are endless squabbles over bogus economic projections. It’s all he-said she-said on costs.

It’s probably a lost cause to get the media to cover industry claims more skeptically. But why haven’t Dems learned to flip the script? By now they should have built a meta-narrative: this always happens; they’re always wrong. They have fear mongering; we have history. There they go again. The public doesn’t know it’s being repeatedly and deliberately scammed. Instead of litigating individual claims, Waxman and crew should be drawing attention to the bigger pattern.

4. Progress is rare and hard fought, but it’s usually durable

Americans now take nutrition labels utterly for granted. They fly on airplanes without breathing cigarette smoke and never think twice about it. The fact that lettuce does not poison them goes unremarked.

Yet these were all highly controversial fights. Waxman engaged in them over extended periods of time, with little public support, often against immense odds. These days no one thinks about them other than to wonder what the fuss was and why it took so long. From big things like Social Security to little things like air bags, once measures benefiting everyday citizens are in place, politicians mess with them at their own risk. When legislation is being debated, the public fears costs; after legislation is passed, the public enjoys the benefits. Turns out the public likes public health.

Once universal health care finally comes to America, it will never go away. So too with clean energy and carbon reduction programs. Republicans know this, which is why they fight so ferociously to prevent the first step.

If forward movement is difficult but backward movement is rare, then it makes sense to take whatever ground you can, whenever you can.

So …

I know plenty of green activists who think Waxman blew it. They think he should have started with something stronger than the USCAP plan and bargained down from there. They think he should have stuck to his guns and forced a showdown over targets, or agricultural offsets, or subsidies for carbon-capture-and-storage technology. They think he should have worked more closely with the White House to do public advocacy rather than backroom dealmaking.

I don’t want to get into these disputes (again), but it’s worth making at least one point: Waxman has been doing this for a long, long time. He’s very, very good at it. He’s won some extremely unlikely victories against long odds. This doesn’t mean he deserves automatic deference, but he has earned a presumption of trust. If you think, from your perch behind your computer, based on your study of news reports and blog posts, that he could have done better … and he thinks, with his decades of experience and years spent in close consultation with colleagues on this issue, that he couldn’t … at the very least you should reconsider using so many exclamation points.

Green activists see the fight over ACES as The Showdown, the make-or-break moment. That’s almost certainly not how Waxman sees it. He thinks he’s in the early skirmishes of a long war. That difference in perspective explains why, despite the concessions he’s been forced to swallow, he’s never lost his placid calm. He’s not arm wrestling; he’s playing chess.