Recently The New York Times published my op-ed "How Liberals Win," in which I argued that throughout American history, liberal advancements have been mainly achieved with corporate support, and not without. For example, FDR needed corporations to establish basic workplace standards. LBJ needed them to spark a wave of environmental regulation. And Obama needed them to win health care, stimulus, Wall Street reform, higher fuel-efficiency standards, and stronger food-safety rules.
But as you surely know, I was not able to include a cap on carbon emissions on that list. And it might look at first glance that the failure of "cap-and-trade" legislation, which had a multitude of corporate compromises that made environmentalists cringe to varying degrees, debunks my case.
Soon after the bill was left for dead in the Senate, 350.org’s Bill McKibben declared, “So now we know what we didn’t before: making nice doesn’t work. It was worth a try, and I’m completely serious when I say I’m grateful they made the effort, but it didn’t even come close to working. So we better try something else … we’re going to need a movement, the one thing we haven’t had.”
Since then, McKibben has moved the environmental community to focus on blocking fossil-fuel projects like the Keystone XL oil pipeline instead of building broad coalitions, which has left out previously supportive unions as well as corporations. And Naomi Klein, in a cover piece for The Nation, took McKibben’s logic several steps further and argued that the environmental movement should merge with the Occupy movement and declare capitalism itself the enemy of the climate.
But not only does their logic fail to account for the reforms President Obama did enact by working with corporations, it also fails to recognize the real reason why the climate bill failed.
It’s not because a liberal-corporate coalition was futile. It’s because at the last minute, the coalition broke apart.