A lengthy new study opinion piece aims to pin the blame for the failure of the climate bill on the environmental community. It has already resulted in head-exploding headlines like this one in The Guardian:


First, if we’re going to truly learn from this epic failure, let’s frame the issue fully, something Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol fails to do in her incredibly long but oddly incomplete essay “Naming the Problem: What It Will Take to Counter Extremism and Engage Americans in the Fight against Global Warming” [PDF].

As readers know, I think the opponents of action — the fossil fuel companies, the disinformers, the right-wing media, and the anti-science, pro-pollution ideologues in the Senate — deserve 60 percent of the blame. The lame-stream media gets 30 percent for its generally enabling coverage — see “How the status quo media failed on climate change” and “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.” Then the “think small” centrists and lukewarmers get 5 percent for helping to shrink the political space in the debate (see here and here).

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So we are divvying up the remaining 5 percent of blame between team Obama and environmental groups (along with Senate Democrats, scientists, progressives, and everyone else, including me). I’m not sure how much can be learned from the climate bill failure if your main focus is the elite environmental community. Skocpol does spend a lot of time discussing the Tea Party-driven extremism of the GOP, but, I think, drawing the wrong lessons.

Second, for that last 5 percent of blame, the lion’s share has to go to Obama (see “The failed presidency of Barack Obama, Part 2“). He is the agenda-shaper. He has the biggest megaphone by far. He made most of the decisive blunders (see below). But not according to Skocpol. She asserts:

To hold a “failure of leadership” by Obama responsible for the ultimate shortfall for cap and trade, we would have to imagine that, in the spring of 2010, the President could have done something better or different than the USCAP leaders or Senate bargainers to satisfy Rahm Emmanuel’s realistic demand to “get me some Republicans.” We have to picture Barack Obama being more persuasive with leading Republicans than, say, Environmental Defense Fund honcho Fred Krupp, who had successfully cajoled votes out of GOP Senators in the past. I do not find that plausible. Presidential arm-twisting and sweet-talking were not the issue. Developments in the two parties, especially among Republicans, were pivotal. [emphasis mine]

Now, if that rings true to you, you don’t have to keep reading this blog post. You can dive into Skocpol’s 142-page PDF.

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But skip the PDF and keep reading if — like one senior congressional staffer involved with the bill who I ran that quote by — you think it is absurd to claim that the head of a medium-sized environmental group is more persuasive, indeed a more important leader, than the most powerful person in the free world.

Note that such questionable assertions/opinions are not rare in Skocpol’s paper, but very common. It isn’t peer-reviewed, nor do I think could pass peer review, for reasons that will become clear. It is kind of a mini-book — an oral history overlaid with a bunch of opinions. But the opinions are just that and not inherently more valid than yours or mine merely because they come from a well-regarded scholar.

Obama’s failure of leadership extends far beyond “arm-twisting” and “sweet-talking.” Here are the key failures, as I see them (feel free to add your own):

  • Pushing healthcare reform in such an incompetent fashion that it took a full year, lost public support for that reform and sweeping pieces of legislation in general, energized the opposition, and generally further poisoned a poisonous political atmosphere.
  • Failing to insist that the climate bill be able to be passed through the reconciliation process, which requires only 51 votes and prevents a filibuster — in retrospect, this was almost certainly the single biggest strategic mistake (though not Obama’s alone).
  • Never keeping Democratic senators in line, and, for instance, never making clear that there was definitely going to be a vote on the climate bill, as they knew there would be for health care. This allowed moderate Democrats to publicly bad-mouth the bill and say that there was no path to 60 votes, which essentially sent the message to moderate Republicans crucial to the bill’s passage that they would be taking a massive political risk supporting any bill.
  • Never giving one single major national speech on the most important issue of our time, and even muzzling his Cabinet and administration from talking about climate. Obama demonstrated with, for instance, the fiscal cliff that the bully pulpit can move public opinion, or at least solidify opinion that is broad but perhaps not deep.

Skocpol misses the importance of most if not all of those. If you fail to recognize these blunders, it is implausible that you’ll figure out what to do right next time, which is one of the main purposes of Skocpol’s paper. To be clear, though, I think the environmental community made some very serious mistakes, but mostly different ones than Skocpol identifies.

Because the paper is not peer-reviewed, Skocpol can use anonymous quotes whose interpretation cannot be verified, and she can cite sources who don’t actually agree with her conclusions. For instance, she writes:

I have also relied heavily on The Climate War, an interview-based account of the cap and trade effort that was published in mid-2010 by Eric Pooley, who was at that time a journalist and has since become a Senior Vice President at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Strange then that this is what Pooley believes based on his interviews:

We need to get to 60 [senators] to get it done. And so far we have not been able to do that. Now why haven’t we been able to? I believe the most important reason is that the President of the United States has not gotten in there and fought for a bill …

He has not led on three levels: the level of a sustained deep communication to the American people explaining why we need to do this; why we need to transition to clean energy and how we’re going to get it done; why a carbon cap is so important — he hasn’t really made that case …

Pooley has a lot more disagreements with Skocpol, which he lays out here.

She cites Robert Brulle’s work extensively, but doesn’t appear to see how that work undercuts her main thesis. She writes:

Throughout the 2000s decade, Brulle, [Jason] Carmichael, and [Craig] Jenkins show, GOP Congressional votes and arguments against environmental bills were associated with declining public concern, while statements from Democratic politicians about the rising threat of global warming and the need to deal with it raised the level of public concern. Remember, these findings come from quarterly measurements of both dependent and independent variables, so the findings are unusually powerful.

Well, yes, but that’s why Brulle wrote two years ago, “By failing to even rhetorically address climate change, Obama is mortgaging our future and further delaying the necessary work to build a political consensus for real action.”

It is kind of baffling Skocpol repeatedly cites Brulle’s work but then hand-waves away the importance of Democratic politicians talking about the rising threat of global warming. Remember, Obama himself wasn’t just mostly silent on the climate threat — he muzzled his administration and other congressional leaders (and much of the environmental community) too!

Coincidentally, Yale University’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies just came out with a study, “Of Stasis and Movements: Climate Legislation in the 111th Congress,” which found, unsurprisingly:

Through comparison with the Affordable Care Act and the history of U.S. environmental policymaking, the second section suggests three political forces that might have helped strength the climate campaign: public opinion, grassroots mobilization and presidential leadership.

I hesitate to say “duh.” But, seriously.

This is an unavoidably long post given the length and, I think, importance of not learning the wrong lessons of the past. But hey, David Roberts already has onetwothree posts on the subject! And I’ve been on travel or else I’d have written something sooner.

Let’s explore the reconciliation issue a bit more, because Skocpol mostly ignores it even though it was, in retrospect, probably the single biggest blunder. Certainly if you could ask most participants in the process what is the one thing they would change — if they could — it would be the reconciliation decision. Yes, I am aware that this is a counterfactual, but Skocpol’s entire essay is built around multiple counterfactuals — what the environmental community could have done differently to achieve success. As an aside, her answer — rally around the (too weak, business-unfriendly) cap-and-dividend bill — was neither politically nor environmentally viable, and Roberts expresses his doubt here.

But reconciliation was at least theoretically possible since Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) apparently supported it, and team Obama had gotten it for health care.

Skocpol’s essay was released with a companion piece [PDF] by Petra Bartosiewicz and Marissa Miley, “The Too Polite Revolution: Why the Recent Campaign to Pass Comprehensive Climate Legislation in the United States Failed.” While Skocpol says, “I have been fortunate to consult with journalists Petra Bartosiewicz and Marissa Miley, who have done a superb job of interviewing most participants in the immediate battles and describing and assessing what happened in 2009 and 2010,” she ignores one of their key points:

Many Senate staffers we spoke with said the climate bill was doomed from the start because it was not slated for reconciliation, which would have provided immunity to filibustering and enabled the bill to pass with a simple majority of fifty-one votes rather than the standard sixty votes needed to bring it to a vote. Gaining those sixty votes became even more difficult in January 2010 when Republican upstart Scott Brown won a special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat. After that, any Senate cap-and-trade bill would have to have at least one Republican backer to pass the Senate.

As Eric Pooley recounts in The Climate War, Reid indicated in a March 2009 meeting with Duke CEO Jim Rogers and EDF’s Fred Krupp that he might try to pass the climate bill through reconciliation but that Rogers and Krupp managed to persuade him not to take the that route. (By contrast, reconciliation was used to bring amendments to the health care and education reform bills to a vote in 2010, since elements of each act had been put into the annual federal budget.) Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who, as chairman of the Senate Budget committee, oversaw whether to include reconciliation instructions in the budget resolution, opposed putting climate through reconciliation. “It doesn’t work well for writing major substantive legislation,” he said at the time.

Talk about blunders.

As the Yale study “Of Stasis and Movements” points out:

Polarization and political geography have such a large impact only because of the 60-vote, filibuster-imposed threshold on passing nearly all legislation; dropping that threshold to 51 would have completely changed the political dynamics and greatly enhanced the probability of victory. That is, the filibuster can either be understood as simply part of the basic political conditions under which the climate movement operated or as the single most important cause of the climate bill’s defeat.

In fact, or, rather, in a counterfactual, the filibuster is not a given. Far from it.

Indeed, as Pooley explains in his book:

With the backing of the White House, the Senate decided to reserve the right to use a parliamentary shortcut called budget “reconciliation” to pass a health-care bill, but ruled out the maneuver for the climate bill. Using this fast-track process for the cap, Emanuel said, would be “a bridge too far” — another reminder that Obama wanted healthcare reform more than climate action.

Even so, Pooley describes the meeting between Reid and Rogers and Krupp this way.

Looking directly at Rogers, he said “I don’t think we’re going to get a strong bill unless we do this through budget reconciliation” — a maneuver that would allow Reid to pass a bill with fifty-one votes instead of the sixty needed to override a filibuster. “I may try to get it done that way.”

Rogers blanched — the sixty vote threshold was his insurance that the bill would meet his specifications …

I apologize for failing to warn you to put on your head vise.

If it is true that reconciliation was a legitimate possibility because Reid wanted it, and that team Obama chose to push reconciliation for healthcare reform rather than climate, and that key members of the business-environmental coalition backing the bill didn’t push for it (and actually argued against it), then it is very straightforward to say that this was the single most important (plausibly changeable) cause of the climate bill’s defeat.

Skocpol has a long discussion of the rise of the Tea Party, the polarization of the GOP, but she somehow blames environmentalists for not figuring out how to respond to that as wisely as the people pushing healthcare reform. Skocpol writes (incorrectly):

As both health reformers and global warming warriors geared up, there was a key difference. One set of reformers looked to learn from past failure, while the other wanted to extend partial successes. Looking back at the “Health Security” debacle of 1993-94, would-be health reformers concentrated on learning from mistakes made when Democrats last controlled both the White House and both houses of Congress. They set out to do better at policy specification, expert preparations, and political coalition-building. Meanwhile, climate change reformers prepared to extend and recapitulate what they saw as earlier accomplishments …

That is just not true. The health reformers only needed Democratic votes, and in fact, they ultimately required reconciliation to get the bill they wanted (and the administration spent a lot of time persuading liberals that this was the best bill they could get rather than a sellout to the insurance companies). Also, by making clear that all the Dems knew a vote was going to happen — and having  reconciliation in their back pocket — the White House was making clear to senators that opposing the bill would not accomplish anything (except get the Democratic base and Democratic donors pissed with them), and hence that their best strategy was to negotiate the best deal for their constituents.

The fact is that climate-change reformers — who, again, I have many issues with — learned two key lessons from the failure of the BTU tax during 1993-1994. The first was not to push a tax (how times change!). The second was not to try to pass something without business support. But Skocpol says that second strategy was a mistake. Her opinion may be valid, but my opinion is that getting the support of the electric utility industry was not a mistake and that her preferred approach, the cap-and-dividend, wouldn’t even have gotten close to a majority of Democrats in either the House or Senate because the business community would have been against it.

Again, if we are going to do a counterfactual, then it is pretty obvious that the single change that should have been made in the overall strategy was to get the right to use  reconciliation for the climate bill. And if that meant not getting it for the healthcare bill, so be it. Frankly, if the White House had not managed the healthcare bill so incompetently, they wouldn’t have even needed reconciliation!

Removing the filibuster option and requiring only 51 votes would’ve changed the entire political dynamics of the climate bill, as the Yale analysis noted. It was, in retrospect, the optimal response to the rise of the Tea Party that Skocpol spends so much time discussing. I, along with many others I have spoken to, think we would’ve gotten a serious bill if we’d only needed 51 votes.

Now, you may hold the opinion that reconciliation was not possible for the climate bill, but it was certainly more possible than cap-and-dividend — or more possible than rapidly setting up a grassroots movement, another key omission by the environmental community according to Skocpol and the Yale analysis. Again, I think that a real grassroots movement would have been valuable — as Bill McKibben has shown. But if the goal was passing a climate bill during the brief, shining moment that was possible in 2009 (and 2010), I’d rather have had reconciliation than the grassroots mobilization (or, I should say, rather than the modest grassroots mobilization the environmental community had been able to achieve in 2009). Of course, both would be ideal.

I think, in retrospect, failure of White House leadership was a major reason reconciliation was not an option. It also appears the business-environmental community played a counterproductive role. But again, if the choice was aggressive White House leadership (i.e. not making the mistakes listed at the top) and no change in the business-environmental strategy for the bill, or the same non-leadership from team Obama and a better business-environmental strategy, I’d take the former in a heartbeat.

Read more on Theda Skocpol’s report on the failure of cap-and-trade: summary by Philip Bump; responses from Bill McKibbenEric PooleyMark Hertsgaard, and Mike Tidwell; three (count ‘em: onetwothree) posts from David Roberts; and a followup post from Skocpol herself.

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