The 2010 failure of the Senate to pass cap-and-trade legislation is a scar the environmental movement tries to ignore but can't stop examining. It sits there, barely healed, still painful -- a reminder of the lost promise of a new president and a brief House majority.
Harvard University political scientist Theda Skocpol has released a long, robust assessment of what went wrong in the political fight [PDF]. It's a detailed document that analyzes the politics of environmental policy leading up to the fight and in the years following, drawing direct contrast with the push for healthcare reform. Why that effort succeeded -- barely -- at the same time that cap-and-trade failed is interesting.
Skocpol's thesis for why cap-and-trade failed can be simplified to a few points: failed organizing efforts by advocates for the policy, an attempt to craft legislation behind closed doors at a moment that demanded transparency, and (of course) massive shifts in public opinion due to the concerted efforts of opponents of action.
It's that first point that is perhaps the most instructive, if I may betray my prejudices. Skopcol notes that environmental groups shifted focus away from the grassroots after winning key environmental protections. "Once those laws and federal regulatory bureaucracies to enforce them were in place," she writes, "the DC political opportunity structure shifted -- and so did the organization and focus of environmental activism. Big environmental organizations headquartered in Washington DC and New York expanded their professional staffs and became very adept at preparing scientific reports and commentaries to urge the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) onward."
Moreover, the organizations focused on responding to public opinion more than shaping it.