Lessons from the climate fight: it's the Senate, stupid
In the latest New Yorker, Ryan Lizza’s got a fantastic blow-by-blow account of the climate bill’s demise in the Senate. Definitely read the whole thing.
There’s a lot to say about it, some of which I’ll get into later, but I think the central lesson is pretty clear: it’s the Senate, stupid.
The fashionably cynical take is to say that the effort to secure comprehensive climate legislation in 2010 was always doomed, a spectacular waste of time, money, and political capital better spent building local and state-level support. On this view, green leaders should be fired for terminal naïveté.
To me this gets it backwards, though. It’s not so much that the green movement must be incompetent because it failed to sway the Senate, it’s that the Senate must be dysfunctional to remain paralyzed in response to a fairly extraordinary, broad-based effort. Obviously green strategy is open to critique, but to me the story is about a Senate far more degraded — both structurally and in terms of personnel — than most people anticipated in 2008. (The question of whether they should have anticipated it will be litigated to no end, I’m sure.)
Think of the climate bill fight as having two basic phases. The first phase was documented by Eric Pooley in his book The Climate War. In that telling, the need for solutions is clear, policy analysts are converging on a common approach, a broad coalition is forming, and the political stars are aligning. That phase carries through the campaign, the election, up to the passage of a comprehensive bill in the House. To that point, things are going roughly as you’d expect them to go in a sane world — it isn’t easy, and there are plenty of unpleasant compromises, but momentum is finally gathering and success is within reach.
The second phase is documented by Lizza: the Senate phase. That’s when strategy becomes clownish and inept, policy concessions become absurd, and the whole enterprise becomes impossible.
The Senate is dysfunctional and corrupt. I know I keep harping on this, but that’s because other people keep harping on the green movement and cap-and-trade and John Kerry and Obama. When liberals turn on each other because of failure in the Senate, the Senate wins. The Senate is not the real world! It’s a corrupt, unrepresentative, archaic institution run according to perverse rules, populated with incurious, egotistical, ignorant, wealthy old white men. Nothing good or decent survives there. That’s not a problem for good and decent things, it’s a problem for the Senate!
Obviously, greens and Dems knew the Senate existed and should have planned for it. But it’s too easy to say everyone should have known climate legislation was an impossible lift in the Senate. The ineptness, absurdity, and adamantine status quo bias on display in the Senate over the last few years has gone beyond what could have been reasonably predicted by even the most cynical. More on that in subsequent posts.