On Saturday, presidential candidates Dennis Kucinich, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton gathered in L.A. to discuss climate and energy at a forum co-sponsored by Grist and PRI’s Living on Earth. The forum was moderated by Steve Curwood of LoE, with Mary Nichols of the California Air Resources Board and me providing questions.

Despite a delay getting started — Clinton was late arriving — things went off without a hitch.

Well, mostly without a hitch. When Clinton came on stage, there was persistent, boorish booing from one part of the crowd. Said boo-er, in the middle of Clinton’s remarks, stood up and started shouting about something or other. He was quickly dragged out by the police. Turns out he was a member of the activist group Code Pink, which is trying to end the Iraq war by showing up at events, yelling and screaming and annoying the bejesus out of everyone, discrediting the anti-war movement and progressive activism, and generally engaging in futile acts of moral onanism.

Aside from that, the evening was filled with good conversation. Some impressions and reactions below.

Dennis Kucinich knew he was in front of a sympathetic crowd. He started by pointing out that he walks the walk — lives in a 1,600-square-foot home (a not-so-subtle dig at Edwards’ 28,000-square-foot compound), drives a small Ford Focus, and eats a compassionate vegan diet. The audience ate it up. He got several whoops and hollers, running through his usual new-agey stump speech and tossing red meat (green meat?) to the L.A. greens in attendance. No more nukes, no more coal, shut down all mines, make all electricity, water, and transportation infrastructure publicly owned, stimulate the economy by spending tons of public money on renewable tech and green jobs, etc. etc.

The big question about all this, of course, is how a President Kucinich could get such a radical agenda past Congress. His only answer was that he would talk over their heads, directly to the people, and get them so riled that they would, I guess, drag Congress along. I’m not sure where he sees the evidence for this enormous untapped vein of radical progressivism among the American populace, but he seems convinced.

He was asked what he would tell all the people he’d put out of work. He promised — seriously — to offer them all a publicly paid income commensurate with what they were making before. Indeed, he promised everyone in America a guaranteed minimum income. When in doubt, spend public money!

I asked Kucinich about global equity — how the rich world could shield the world’s poor from the effects of climate. He didn’t have much of an answer. In general, I found Kucinich relatively light on specifics. I’m not sure we learned anything from him we couldn’t have gotten from his public remarks thus far in the campaign.

Whatever you might think about Hillary Clinton, she has gravitas. I’ve seen her in person twice now and I’ve felt the same vibe in the room both times, a sense that a person of historical significance has entered. She seemed somewhat muted Saturday evening, perhaps because she was slightly under the weather (I heard her people had requested tissues). Intentionally or not, her serious demeanor worked — it played off the activist energy in the crowd and came off as hard-bitten, realistic, even, dare I say, presidential.

One of the sobering messages she delivered is that when she mentions energy independence, crowds go nuts. When she mentions global warming, there’s silence. “The public isn’t there yet.” This means, for one thing, that greens need to do a lot more to carry the message out. For another, they need to be realistic about what can be accomplished in the current political environment. Effectively, she was saying, “I’m with you; I understand the problem. But you need to give me some room to work — attacking those of us on your side for insufficient purity isn’t helpful.”

Clinton was by far the most responsive to specific questions. She argued in some detail for why she is uniquely able to accomplish something on this issue. And when I asked her about the Lieberman-Warner climate bill in the Senate, she didn’t say whether she’d vote for it, but she did speak at length about its strengths and weaknesses, and indicate that she’s be following Barbara Boxer’s lead on it. (Hiding behind Boxer, before a California audience, is quite politically astute.)

My impression — and this was confirmed multiple times by various audience members I spoke to later — is that Clinton had the best grasp of the political and policy details. She was the most comfortable speaking off the top of her head. As one political operative put it to me later, “She’s always the smartest one in the room.”

John Edwards had a lot to say, and consequently talked quite fast. It was a bit of a blur for me, but he basically covered the highlights of his well-known (to Grist readers) climate and energy plan. He returned again and again to familiar themes: the federal government has been corrupted by special interests; it’s time to be bold.

My sense during the Q&A is that while Edwards’ top-line proposals are immensely appealing — efficiency, green jobs, fighting poverty, etc. — he’s either unwilling or unable to go much deeper. In response to specific questions, he would always go lateral, covering broad swathes of ground while staying light on specifics. It was as though he were merely accessing parts of his stump speech. I don’t know whether he knows this stuff in a deeper-than-surface way; maybe he just stays at the top level because he thinks it works better rhetorically. This was a crowd that was hankering for something beyond what’s on the record, though, so I think he missed an opportunity.

In the end, all the candidates were gracious, informed, and aware of how central climate and energy issues are to America’s future. They’re ready to move. As Al Gore keeps saying, it’s up to citizens now to create the political space in which they can act. It comes back to us.

Addenda:

  • There will be video of the entire event up soon, I think, perhaps by Monday morning.
  • After the event, I was interviewed briefly by Bill Schneider of CNN. I have no idea whether it has aired or not, or whether it will, but if any of you watch CNN keep an eye out for it. [UPDATE: The CNN video is here.]
  • A huge shout out to the production crew, which put together an incredibly professional set — sound, lighting, props — in the space of a single day, and insured that the show went smoothly. I have a whole new respect for the folks who work in the background on events like this.
  • A second huge shout out to the folks at the groups who partnered to bring this about — LCV, CLCV, NRDC, PFRE, and CAP. Props.