The stupid politics behind Obama’s ozone cave
A new story in The Wall Street Journal confirms all my worst suspicions about Obama’s cave on ozone regulations, namely that it was a) a crass political move, b) driven by new Chief of Staff Bill Daley, and c) based on daft political logic.
Savor the irony of these three paragraphs:
On Aug. 16, Mr. Daley met with environmental, public-health and other groups to discuss the Environmental Protection Agency rule that would tighten air-quality standards. At one point he lamented that the issue couldn’t be worked out by consensus with industry, as the White House did with the auto industry on fuel-economy rules.
When the American Lung Association mentioned a poll showing public support for EPA standards, Mr. Daley appeared uninterested, according to one person in the room. “He literally cut the person off and said ‘I don’t give a [expletive] about the poll’,” this person said. A senior White House official said Mr. Daley wanted to hear arguments about the substance of the regulation and its impact, not political arguments, and he was uninterested in all polls on this topic.
The same day, Mr. Daley met with industry groups, who gave the White House a map showing counties that would be out of compliance with the Clean Air Act if the stricter standards were put in place. The map showed that the rule would affect areas in the politically important 2012 election states of Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio.
He wants to hear arguments about the substance of the rule … like how it would affect swing states in the next election!
Oh, man. So much to unpack here.
There’s a kind of implicit conventional wisdom in U.S. politics, which even lots of liberals seem to accept, that conflates caving to conservatives and industry with political “realism.” You saw a lot of that when Obama announced his ozone decision — liberals scolding other liberals not to be such dippy idealists, to get with the program and realize that Obama has to make tough decisions and pick his battles, etc. etc.
But if you ask me, the kind of reflexive pro-business-lobby attitude that Bill Daley brings to the White House is as naive and politically clueless as anything you’ll ever find in the blogosphere. I mean, he regrets that the ozone rule couldn’t be worked out “by consensus with industry”? Anyone who would think that must be spectacularly ignorant of the power industry’s unbroken 40-year record of hostility toward regulatory restraints of any kind. Has he not noticed the massive, coordinated PR effort against EPA in the last year? They sure sound ready to find “consensus,” huh?
More to the point, though, the notion that this individual sop to industry can meaningfully affect the electoral dynamics of swing states demonstrates an almost pathological ignorance of post-truth politics.
The logic seems to go like this: If the ozone regs had passed, several swing states would be put into noncompliance. That would have involved some fines and prompted the need for aggressive state implementation policies (SIPs). That might have upset voters, who would then be less likely to vote for Obama and, e.g., Michigan Sen. Carl Levin (D). It might have upset businesses, who would then be less likely to give money to those candidates. Now that the White House has delayed the rule, those voters won’t be upset, so they’ll be more likely to vote the right way, and businesses won’t be upset, so they’ll be more likely to give money.
I hope it’s obvious, just from laying it out, how absurd this kind of reasoning is, especially when it comes to voters. It relies on the presumption that there is a neutral media which will report to voters in those states that something was going to happen, but now isn’t, and that those voters will be attentive enough to understand that, and that the knowledge will meaningfully affect their voting behavior.
But there is no such media. There are no referees. And voters are not nearly that sophisticated. They assess politicians based on crude stereotypes, and when politicians do something counter to those stereotypes, voters simply don’t notice. That’s more true than ever in today’s fractured media landscape. The kind of people who get their news from Fox are never, ever going to give Obama credit for blocking regulations.
Obama cut taxes more than Bush did in his first term. Yet he’s still known — even among most Democratic voters! — as a tax-and-spend, big-government liberal. And this one-off regulatory decision is supposed to cut through the clutter?
The case is only slightly less ridiculous when it comes to business. Yes, (some) businesses have more concrete interests involved than voters. They’re more likely to be aware of the regs and more likely to be aware that this one was delayed. But think about it: What business owner or business lobby is going to say, “You know, the toxics rule and the transport rule are awful, but Obama did delay this one other rule for a few years, so let’s give him some money!” Is this going to diminish the hostility or money coming from the Chamber of Commerce one iota?
This kind of back-room, small-bore, wheeler-dealer bullsh*t is what passes for political maneuvering in much of D.C. That seems to be Daley’s metier. But that doesn’t mean we have to take it seriously. Obama stuck his finger in EPA’s eye and left thousands of people to a few more years of ill health for political advantage that is almost certainly chimerical. It may not be the biggest thing in the world, but it’s a sign that they don’t get post-truth politics at all.