One aspect of the Graham-Reid flustercluck has gone underappreciated.
Atrios, Digby, David Dayen, and other lefties think that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is just being a giant douchebag. His intention was always to string Democrats along, water down the climate bill, and bail at the last minute.
I’ve heard from some folks in the green movement, who obviously aren’t willing to say so on the record, that the fault is Reid’s. He jammed immigration up front to save his own tail and has thereby doomed both bills.
What both are missing, and what Graham is right about, is Obama.
The climate bill has always been a long shot, flying in the face of both elite skepticism and public indifference. Only one thing could possibly have put it over the top this year: an all-out campaign by the Obama administration. Graham thought he would get that. He expected to be in the spotlight, visiting the Oval Office, for all the world a Very Important and Bipartisan man.
What has become clear, to Graham and anyone else paying attention, is that Obama is not going to do an all-out push. If nothing else, his response to the Gulf oil disaster has made that clear. If he was looking for an opportunity to drive home the clean energy message, this was it — the Katrina of fossil fuels. Yet all he’s done is blandly reaffirm his support for offshore drilling. I haven’t heard a word about clean energy alternatives or, God forbid, efficiency, which if pursued seriously could save more oil than offshore rigs could produce, at a net savings rather than a cost, and with the added bonus feature of not occasionally leaking out and destroying entire American ecosystems and industries.
Only Obama could have given climate clear, top priority, and that’s the only way it could have passed. But he sat by passively as Reid and congressional Democrats pushed immigration into the mix. There will be no immigration bill this year, and between financial reform, immigration, and a Supreme Court pick, there won’t be time to mount a serious campaign for the climate bill either.
Purely on the politics, Obama and the Dems made the right decision. Immigration is a base-mobilizing issue heading into the midterms. The immigration movement has been galvanized by the Arizona law. They’re marching in the streets all across the country and openly pressuring the Dems. They have energy and numbers, they’re mobilized, and they turn out the vote. I’m not sure the environmental movement can say the same. (Where are the protests over the oil spill?)
Climate would have fired up an already activated GOP base, while the left grassroots had already soured on the bill and “centrists” never liked it. Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod have been urging the president to steer clear of climate ever since the post-ACES debacle last summer. They think, correctly, that it’s got low odds of success and high odds of blowback.
Despite all that, the fact remains that this year was probably the last chance to pass a climate bill for the foreseeable future. The Democrats are expected to lose substantial numbers of seats in the midterms, wiping out the big House majority that allowed Pelosi to get the ACES bill through and putting climate in the Senate even further out of reach. (You thought appeasing Graham was bad. How bad would a bill have to be to get six or seven Republican votes with a presidential election looming?)
At this point the future for climate legislation is murky. Despite the purported “inevitability” of carbon restrictions, they don’t seem feasible any time in the foreseeable future. Even EPA carbon regulations are under attack. The U.N. climate process has withered waiting on U.S. action; it could now crumble entirely.
It would have taken an extraordinary act of leadership for Obama to champion climate in the face of these political headwinds. He would have been gambling his administration and Democratic majorities with no clear expectation of success. I think the problem is of sufficient magnitude and urgency that such leadership is demanded of him, morally and politically. Obama doesn’t. Graham wasn’t wrong to notice.