This week I’m writing about how climate/energy issues fit within the larger progressive struggle. Today, I’m going to list a few policies, including climate/energy policies, on which the disconnect between public opinion and Beltway conventional wisdom is striking. Tomorrow, I’m going to review a few reasons why politicians in D.C. are so unresponsive to public opinion on these issues. And later this week, I’ll explain why I think climate/energy is connected to those other issues, and to the larger progressive project, in ways that aren’t properly appreciated. Oh, the fun we’ll have!

The energy disconnect

Last week brought news of a new poll showing broad support for the EPA, both generally and specifically on CO2 regulations, across parties and across regions. It’s no big surprise: People tend to like the fact that there’s a government agency trying to protect them from getting sick or prematurely dying from the effects of pollution. The Clean Air Act has always been popular, not because D.C. power players like it but because it works: EPA’s air pollution regulations have had enormous public benefits relative to their lower-than-forecast costs. (See EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s recent post on this subject.)

Americans have also been consistently supportive of federal action on clean energy, climate change, and energy security. See Joe Romm’s compendium of polls for more on that. Note in particular this May 6, 2010, poll that shows a majority of conservatives and even 47 percent of tea partiers in support of a bill that balances increased domestic production with a carbon cap.

And yet! In D.C., climate pollution is seen as a political loser. Candidates in the midterms can’t run away from “cap and tax” fast enough. The Senate not only punted on climate legislation, Republicans and some conservative Democrats are maneuvering to block the EPA’s ability to address climate pollution.

The tax-cut disconnect

The public has been pretty clear: They think the rich pay too little in taxes and want them to pay more. In a 2009 poll, a startling 74 percent favored raising taxes on those making over $250,000 a year. At least six major polls in the last year have shown large majorities in favor of allowing the Bush tax cuts for the rich to expire next year. It’s how Americans wanted to pay for health care.

And yet! Right now in Congress this overwhelmingly popular policy is caught on the brink. A sizeable group of House Democrats is pushing to extend the tax cuts for the rich. According to conventional wisdom as expressed in The Wall Street Journal, they are “feeling the heat from voters worried that letting the tax cuts expire could worsen the recession.” (But what heat? What voters have expressed this worry? Voters want to do it, they keep saying so!)

In the Senate, the tax cuts for the rich are being defended by a group of rich people, including Indiana’s Evan Bayh (D):

In an interview, Bayh said pushing forward with tax increases — and not seriously slashing spending — will hurt his party politically, particularly with independents.

“First we need to focus on spending restraint instead of just coming out and saying our answer to the deficit is raising taxes,” Bayh told POLITICO. “Otherwise, it lays into the old stereotype that those Democrats, they just can’t wait to raise taxes. … I suspect the rest of the 98 percent [of taxpayers] will think they’re next.”

This is vintage centrist cant, so let’s unpack it a bit:

  1. In a recent Gallup poll, 56 percent of Independents expressed support for letting the tax cuts for the rich expire. Why would doing something Independents want you to do hurt you politically with Independents?
  2. Blue Dog Dems claim the tax cuts for the rich serve as economic stimulus; that’s purportedly why they support them. (For the record, tax cuts for the rich are the least effective form of stimulus.) But Bayh also wants cuts in social spending, which would be the opposite of stimulus. The net macroeconomic effect would be … nothing, just a lot less money in the hands of recipients of social spending and a lot more in the hands of rich people.
  3. Why would 98 percent of Americans “think they’re next” in the context of popular bipartisan legislation specifically preserving their tax cuts? Obama and the Dems have cut taxes on 95 percent of working families in America, just as they promised. Why would those families think they’re next unless Evan Bayh kept telling them so?

Neither policy desiderata nor public opinion serve as a guide to Bayh’s position. What can explain it?

The money-in-politics disconnect

A third and final popular policy: reducing corporate influence on politics. A recent poll found a stunning 95 percent — as close to “everybody” as you’re ever likely to get in a poll — agreed with the following: “Corporations spend money on politics mainly to buy influence in government and elect people who are favorable to their financial interests.”

WaPo Citizens United pollWashington Post/ABC poll, 17 Feb 2010: support or oppose Citizens United decisionRemember the recent Supreme Court decision to remove any limits on corporate campaign spending (Citizens United v. FEC)? In a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, an overwhelming 80 percent opposed the court’s decision, 65 percent “strongly,” a high level of intensity for any political dispute. Some 72 percent support congressional action to reinstate the limitations, with over 50 percent — a majority — “strongly” supportive.

What about something
bigger, along the lines of public financing of elections? Yeah, the public supports that too:

Voters, particularly independents, strongly embrace the Fair Elections Now Act, a system that allows candidates who eschew contributions over 100 dollars to receive public matching funds for money they raise from individuals in their own state. Voters support the Fair Elections Now Act by a two-to-one margin (62 to 31 percent).

And yet! Not only did the Senate not even try to reimplement serious restrictions on corporate money after Citizens United, it couldn’t even pass a bill that would require corporations to publicly disclose their donations. (On Sunday, Obama railed against the Republicans for killing the bill.)

That’s three separate policies supported by the public but seen as politically risky in D.C. (And there are surely more — leave your candidates in comments.) Why is that? I’ll take a look in my next post.