The battle over the stimulus bill was the first big challenge of the Obama presidency, and the way it played out is instructive. What will it mean for the coming climate/energy fights?

First, let’s get clear on the basic shape of what happened. Obama went into this thinking that an enormous financial crisis and a wide consensus among economists that large federal stimulus is required would be an opportunity to establish an early spirit of pragmatic "post-partisanship." If not in the face of a huge crisis, if not around an indisputably necessary bill, then when?

This is what Obama campaigned on and what he led with in office. He had dinner with conservative pundits. He had extended policy discussions with Congressional Republicans at the White House. He included a far greater percentage of tax cuts in his initial proposal than anyone expected (or most economists recommended). He worked with Congressional Dems to remove some of the small programs Republicans complained about (like re-sodding the National Mall). He did more reaching out, listening, and conceding to the opposing party than Republicans have, cumulatively, in the last 15 years, despite entering office fresh off of huge victories and sky-high public approval.

What did it get him? In terms of Republican support: zilch. Nothing. In the end he got zero votes in the House and all of three in the Senate, after several hundred thousands jobs had been stripped from the package. Republicans carpeted the media demagoguing individual spending programs from the bill and claiming Obama’s bipartisanship had "failed" because, well, because they refused to participate. Karl Rove has announced, basically, that Republicans triumphed by giving Obama nothing and that they would not offer him a shred of credit no matter what happens to the economy. The GOP House minority whip says explicitly that he’s modeling his leadership on Newt Gingrich. Seriously.

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Obama and his team, to their credit, seem to have learned something from all this. As Rahm Emanuel now acknowledges, they focused too much on bipartisanship and process, too much on inside-the-beltway ego-stroking, and too little on using Obama’s extraordinary popularity to muster public support for the substance of the bill. It’s well worth reading Ron Brownstein’s account of a post-mortem interview:

… if [Obama] keeps reaching out, he speculated, Republicans may face "some countervailing pressures" from the public "to work in a more constructive way." White House aides suggest that regardless of how congressional Republicans react on upcoming issues, Obama will pursue alliances with Republican governors and Republican-leaning business groups and leaders.

Yet while promising to continue to seek peace with congressional Republicans, Obama also made clear he’s prepared for the alternative. "I am an eternal optimist, [but] that doesn’t mean I’m a sap," he said pointedly. "So my goal is to assume the best but prepare for a whole range of different possibilities in terms of how Congress reacts."

What does all this mean for coming climate/energy battles?

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It’s important to note that the political landscape is different on these issues than it was on stimulus in some important ways.

There is still the tidal pull toward party unity and opposition on the Republican side, but there’s a handful of Republican Senators who have staked a claim on clean energy. And there are tons of Republicans at the state and city level on board with ambitious policy, who could be marshaled to pressure their Congressional brethren.

On the other hand, you have far less party unity among the Dems on these issues than we saw on the stimulus. The divides here are as much regional as partisan. (See this post.) Suffice to say, Harry Reid hasn’t shown the same facility for imposing party discipline as his counterparts on the other side.

On the bright side, public support for the transition to a clean, green economy is enormous. Obama can tap into that. So can MoveOn, which is building its largest sustained campaign ever around the issue.

So you’ve got wavering fence-sitters on both sides of the aisle and fluid coalitions that haven’t yet quite hardened into rigidity (like they quickly did around stimulus), with huge public support for green energy across demographics. To me this suggests that Obama and the Dems should lead with a public campaign, coming from outside in to the Beltway rather inside-out. Before having nervous Senators put their stakes in the ground on these issues, they should work to build up a real public outcry, focused, ideally, on the states with wavering Senators.

Problem is, I don’t see how that can happen by Memorial Day, which is when Waxman is supposedly going to introduce a bill. I don’t see how, in the current environment, Obama has the time or attention to do the necessary spade work in that time frame. So you’ve got slightly less Republican unity, but not enough less to compensate for the far less Democratic unity. Bipartisanism isn’t going to carry this through, but neither is a party-line vote. The only free variable is the public.

Which is why the Dems should wait until next year to pass a climate bill. More on that (I love getting yelled at!) later.