I will never get used to the strategic and tactical fecklessness of the Senate Democrats. After a caucus meeting last week, it seemed like they’d finally stumbled onto the only strategy that has a snowball’s chance in hell of actually working: package a price on carbon with a tough response to the Gulf oil spill, take an impenetrable bill to the floor backed by a unified front, and dare Republicans to oppose it. Put Republicans on the defensive; make sure there’s a political price to pay for opposition, à la the financial reform bill. That is the only way any Republican is going to support any price on carbon: if they are scared to vote against the bill that contains it.
Since then, the party has reverted to form. Some illustrative examples:
• Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) takes to the media to reinforce the point that there’s just no way Dems can get 60 votes for a price on carbon. For some reason, Dem centrists view themselves as pundits, commenting from the sidelines as those wacky liberals fight for solutions commensurate with the nation’s problems.
But as a Democrat, isn’t it Bingaman’s job to help his party pass a tough climate bill? He could just as easily have said, “I believe a price on carbon is the appropriate policy and I’m going to do everything I can to see it passed.”
After all, when a powerful U.S. senator says “there aren’t 60 votes,” he’s not just observing the political situation, he’s shaping it. He is a player in the game, not a referee or a spectator. Every time he says there aren’t enough votes, it reassures Republicans and wavering Dems that they’ll have plenty of cover from the herd if they duck and run. It takes the pressure off. Perhaps Sen. Bingaman would set a better example for his less senior colleagues by refusing to play the game of political analyst and just bearing down to get the job done.
• Today at the White House, President Obama met with a bipartisan group of senators to discuss the energy bill. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the Senate’s champion on climate action, emerged saying, “We believe we have compromised significantly, and we’re prepared to compromise further.” Joe Lieberman (I-Ct.) assured Politico that some unnamed Republicans “promised to keep talking” about a utility-only carbon price. In other news, Lucy promised to keep the football still for Charlie Brown this time.
Kerry, like many well-meaning Democrats, has trouble getting his head around our current era of post-truth politics. He believes (still) that conservatives have substantive, good-faith objections to the policies in his bill, and if he just tweaks those policies, he can overcome those objections. That’s what the utility-only idea is: the latest attempt to overcome political obstacles with policy mechanisms.
It never works. Whatever principles once animated conservatism, all that’s left is a kneejerk opposition to raising federal revenue. Republicans are going to oppose any kind of price on carbon unless they are scared sh*tless that opposing a bill will bring down the wrath of the public. It’s a political dynamic. Climate policy has nothing to do with it. Further compromises are only setting lower and lower benchmarks.
Conservatives will scream bloody murder about any bill Dems put forward. Any bill. Preemptive compromise doesn’t change that fact. Political battles can only be won with politics.
• Yet again today, Obama “expressed support” for putting a price on carbon. Said the White House statement:
Not all of the Senators agreed with this approach, and the President welcomed other approaches and ideas that would take real steps to reduce our dependence on oil, create jobs, strengthen our national security and reduce the pollution in our atmosphere.
Translated into English: The president asked a group of centrist and conservative senators to support action on climate, and they refused. They want to offer subsidies and tax breaks to various favored technologies, but they don’t want to raise the revenue to pay for it.
So that’s that. Right now we are on a glide path to failure. Unless there’s some sort of large jolt, the default outcome is that all polluter-pays provisions drop out of the bill and we end up with some energy-only package of standards and incentives.
What could provide such a big jolt? My cynical D.C. sources say: nothing. Everyone knows the votes aren’t there and everyone’s playacting and insisting on a carbon price would be so much windmill-tilting. Then again, the inside players never saw the wave coming on financial reform and that bill ended up defying political gravity.
The question remains what it has been for months now: Will the White House jump in with both feet? Or will they “express support” as carbon pricing drifts away like the public option? Only Obama can lead the national discussion and education that could get the public involved on this.