Not Reid, not Godot: The whole world is waiting for YOU Mr. President
The world is aghast. It’s fate, it seems, “lies in the hands of a few U.S. Senators,” as Tuvalu negotiator Ian Fry lamented in his plea for a real, science-driven deal here in Copenhagen.
The collective forehead of humanity wrinkles at the prospect. Who are these people? A couple of them from North Dakota, representing 600,000 people (about 9% of the population of Mumbai’s slums), can prevent the world from rising to an emergency? A thought bubble floats above the Bella Center: “U.S. Senate: Huh?”
A Japanese woman grilled me last night in broken but feisty English about the intricacies of the U.S. Congress: How do you elect them? Why do some of them represent so many and some so few? Does it really take 6 months for them to do anything? Where IS North Dakota?
The Obama team has been here in force, with Cabinet Secretaries speaking every day to demonstrate American resolve. Mayors and Governors and NGOs and businesses from the U.S. are all over Copenhagen, showing the world a genuine, engaged face of America. Senator Kerry gave a good speech yesterday, full of resolve. But the world knows that the U.S. Senate stands in the way. Their eyes say to the Americans in the building “How could you let this go on?”
As frustrated as the world may be about Congress’ failure to deliver a real American commitment here, those of us who worked our butts off to get a bill done before we got here are among the most agitated. We feel like idiots. We are soooo sophisticated about American politics, but we’re sitting here scratching our heads with the rest of the world. And added to the injury of being clueless, we bear the insult of being responsible.
But enough of this wallowing! Lookit, we could waste the next 2 days bemoaning the failings of the U.S. Senate, but we’ll have plenty of time for that. I am as certain of this as I have ever been of anything: It will not be Harry Reid who musters “the fierce urgency of now” to save the world this week.
Blaming the Senate right now diverts attention from the one thing that could salvage a good outcome in Copenhagen and unlock our domestic politics. The Nobel Committee prospectively awarded the Peace Prize last week, so hungry is the world for that one thing. We Americans set the stage for that one thing last November when we responded to a transformational call — a challenge to rise above our broken politics and do what is right and necessary. We elected Barack Obama. We elected him to lead.
We did this for a very good reason — our collective instinct that the “game” as we know it is unwinnable, even if we play it very well. We have to change the game.
Mind you, we weren’t naïve enough to think the game would change overnight, or that the blockade that is the U.S. Senate would part like the Red Sea before Obama. We weren’t just smoking Hope.
But we did believe that when these moments arise — these big, pivotal, scary moments when the chips are down and the stakes are infinite — Obama would rise to them, and call us to follow. Tomorrow is such a moment.
Something will come out of Copenhagen, you can be sure of that. 110 Heads of State aren’t going leave here saying “Oh well, maybe next time.” The question is, in the prevailing sloganese, will they just “seal a deal,” any old deal, so they can get out of here celebrating much and delivering little?
Or will it be a “real deal,” one that sets the world on a course toward solutions as big as the problem? To be real, it has to do the two absolutely necessary and interdependent things:
Genuinely embrace the imperative to prevent catastrophic climate disruption, and reduce emissions accordingly.
Open a clean pathway out of poverty for the global South, including major investments from the developed world in adaptation, low-carbon development, and forest protection. ($10 billion per year is NOT “major;” it’s short by two orders of magnitude.)
The U.S. Senate cannot answer these questions, and if it could, it would answer them wrong. Only Obama has a shot at saying Yes We Can and making it stick.
If he does, he could crash through the appallingly low ceiling of Congress’ vision.
His domestic political opponents would squeal. Political insiders in D.C., including his closest advisors, would wring their hands about the prospect of a Kyoto redux — another deal that the U.S. can’t deliver on. His negotiators have been cowering before that specter all week.
But he would reignite the spirit that got him elected, the hope that maybe we could escape the straightjacket of our dysfunctional politics and face our future squarely, before it’s too late.
Then he would have to push for a domestic climate and energy bill stronger than the one that’s stalled in the Senate right now.
Instead of whittling the bill down to nothing in the quest for 60 votes, he’d have to build it back up to something real.
Instead of squabbling over details of climate policy design and swallowing our tongues (or bolting) as the Senate administers the death of a thousand cuts to the carbon cap, his supporters could get all the way behind him and push with as much unity and ferocity as his opponents do.
Instead of defusing and disarming ourselves with clever but substantively lethal ploys to get from here to 60 votes, we could stand up and fight for what’s right.
Instead of pushing a jobs package in the short term and deferring action on the climate and energy bill, the Congress could make the climate and energy bill the centerpiece of the jobs push, the engine of economic and political recovery. Americans know that fossil fuel dependence is a dead end street, and they’re ready for leaders to turn sharply and boldly to a clean energy future. The President has demonstrated the winning politics of this: Democratic and Republican rivals called for a gas tax holiday last summer while he called for a bold energy transformation. He won.
I’m not asking the President to come here tomorrow to pick a fight with Congress. We already have the fight and we’re losing. I’m asking him to fight to win. A weak deal in Copenhagen — constrained by the limits of Congress’ vision — won’t unlock the politics in the Senate. It will only embolden the opponents, who already smell blood. Worse, it will deflate public will. It’s just too damned hard to galvanize a movement behind legislation that dices the baby to bits.
We could lose this fight. We need to get over that. Obama needs to get over that. We sure can’t win it if we won’t have it.