At Wednesday night’s debate, in the course of arguing that he is not overly beholden to his party or interest groups, Obama said something that is predictably provoking umbrage among enviros: "I support clean coal technology. Doesn’t make me popular with environmentalists."
To many greens, this is just the latest insult from a campaign that has again and again offered support to nuclear power, clean coal, natural gas, offshore drilling, and other environmental bugaboos. Outraged linguistic analysis like the kind found in this comment is common.
Needless to say I have no brief for dirty energy, but politically speaking, I think Obama’s campaign strategy on energy has been both necessary and quite brilliant, if largely unheralded.
To begin with, let’s acknowledge a couple of baseline political facts.
First: Barack Obama is a black liberal with a Muslim name and a Kenyan father whose political career was born in inner city Chicago.
Contemplate that for a moment. It’s easy to forget just how wildly, cosmically unlikely it is for someone like that to be competing in, much less on the verge of winning, a presidential election in the United States. It defies logic, history, and, I don’t know, physics. It’s a miracle. Which is just to say the guy has zero room for error. His job has been to overcome the many built-in presumptions against him and reassure middle America — particularly voters in swing states — that he’s a reasonable, post-partisan, unexotic guy. Of all national candidates in American history, this one has the least room to risk looking radical.
Second, a fact that many enviros are loathe to recognize: most Americans do not hate dirty energy. They hate oil companies in a populist sort of way, but they do not hate oil, or coal, nuclear power, natural gas, or anything else they think might boost supply and lower prices. To the extent they’ve thought about energy at all, they have a vaguely all-of-the-above outlook, which strikes them as common sense. They’re sure as hell not ready to bet their future on solar and wind.
Third, Obama’s aspiration has always been not just to lock up all Kerry’s states but to flip a few key red states like Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, and Nevada. That means that he needs the votes of working class whites, many of whom have deep roots in extractive industries like coal. Condemning coal entirely would put Obama irredeemably outside the pale in places like south and southwest Virginia.
Fourth, Obama has the vote of committed enviros. He just does. They’ll never go to McCain. His rhetoric is going to focus on voters he can bring over from the other side.
So that’s the political context. If Obama came out four-square against coal, nuclear, oil, and natural gas, if he tried to pitch a climate/energy plan based entirely on renewables and efficiency, he would get tagged as an "extreme environmentalist" by McCain, the press, and probably a majority of Democrats. The environmental movement would love for him to stake that claim and have that argument (it’s overdue). Obama, however, would prefer to win the election.
In short, Obama simply cannot, as a matter of political strategy, afford to take the kinds of positions and say the kinds of things enviros want. I know some folks might dispute this, and I suspect I won’t be popular for making this argument. But I’m guessing Plouffe and Axelrod have polling out the wazoo and are acting accordingly.
Next: it isn’t as bad as you think. It’s barely bad at all!