No, liberals did not 'overreach' on climate
Photo: Lomo-CamI was joking on Twitter yesterday that no matter what goes wrong for the Democrats, the Beltway diagnosis is “liberal overreach.” The narrative is so familiar it’s part of the atmosphere in D.C. When this Newsweek piece on “Who Killed the Energy and Climate Bill?” popped up in my feed, I joked (I refuse to say “tweeted”), “liberal overreach!”
Then I read the piece and … damn. It’s really about liberal overreach! I know Daniel Stone to be a smart, thoughtful reporter, so I can’t fathom why he’s running with this tired hippie-punching.
According to Stone, Democrats “reflexively say it was Republicans and their Big Oil friends” who killed climate legislation. “Reflexive,” of course, means knee-jerk and unthinking. Meanwhile, in real life, Republicans campaigned relentlessly against the climate bill, against removing fossil-fuel subsidies, against EPA climate regs, against any action on climate at all. They demagogued what was originally a conservative policy, cap-and-trade, with absurd lies. All of eight Republicans voted for a bill in the House and not one was willing to budge in the Senate despite Democratic pleas.
Meanwhile, fossil-fuel companies mounted an enormous lobbying and propaganda campaign against the bill. Oil and gas companies outspent green advocacy groups by over seven to one; if you add Big Coal in there it’s probably more like 10 to one. Exxon alone spent $27.4 million in 2009 to lobby against the bill, more than the entire environmental lobby combined.
That all really happened. Republicans tried to kill the climate bill and they succeeded. There are plenty of other places to lay blame on the margins — conservative Senate Dems, green strategic ineptitude, Obama’s lack of leadership, the Senate’s antidemocratic supermajority requirement, etc. — but the bulk of the responsibility for the death of the climate bill quite obviously rests with the Republicans and their fossil-fuel backers. They boast about it to their base! There’s nothing reflexive about acknowledging the plain truth. What’s reflexive is clinging to “both parties do it” in the face of all evidence to the contrary.
Stone then gives over space to Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) flack Robert Dillon, who claims that “the Democratic leadership and the environmental community have refused to compromise and so there’s been no opportunity for bipartisanship.” This is the Murkowski MO, of course. She’s a professional concern troll who claims to care about climate change while ruthlessly undermining any actual action. She has dangled the distant prospect of bipartisanship so that the Dem leadership will water down the bill pursuing it, but the fact is she’s never been willing to sign on to a bill that pays for itself. She’s been jerking Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) around, for all the good it did her with the teabaggers.
As to the notion that Democrats “refused to compromise,” it’s an impressive feat to say that with a straight face, even for Dillon. Cap-and-trade began its life as a compromise, a conservative answer to liberal environmental regulations, originally passed by Bush Sr. This whole latest mishegas kicked off with an enormous compromise in the House: Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) started with what Joe Romm once called “the weak, coal-friendly, rip-offset-heavy USCAP climate plan,” developed by centrist green groups and big corporations. Grassroots greens felt burned from day one and from that point on it was one compromise after another — more coal subsidies, more free permits for polluters, softer regulatory oversight for Big Ag, on and on.
After it squeaked through the House it went to the Senate, where were still more compromises — huge subsidies for nukes, expanded offshore drilling, even an offer to shrink the cap-and-trade system down to electric utilities. This was John Kerry’s war cry: “We believe we have compromised significantly, and we’re prepared to compromise further.”
Reid was clear by the end that he’d give just about anything. What did it get him? Not a solitary Republican vote, not a word of support. Murkowski and Dillon were lying about the bill right up until the day it died. They still are.
I don’t know what it is about the Beltway that makes people unwilling or unable to see what’s staring them in the face. The Republican Party was not seeking bipartisanship or compromise on the climate bill any more than on the health-care reform bill or the stimulus bill. They have acted with unity and singular focus toward one purpose: to destroy Obama. They have recognized, correctly, that the current rules of U.S. government create a zero-sum game: They gain to the extent Congress and the administration fail. So they have set about to produce failure, and it has paid fantastic dividends. It is what it is.
The perpetually unconsummated flirtations of the Senate’s few remaining moderate Republicans don’t change the basic fact that the right always intended to kill this bill. There was no prospect of bipartisanship because no Republican senator outside of Lindsey Graham (S.C.) ever seriously contemplated voting for it, no matter how weak it got. No amount of compromise would have changed that.
In the eyes of the Beltway establishment, the great sin of liberals is not that they overreach but that they reach at all — that they are liberals.
Get Grist in your inbox