This is the second part of a three-part response to Theda Skocpol’s report on the failure to pass a climate bill. Here’s part one and part three.

As I wrote yesterday, political scientist Theda Skocpol’s magisterial new assessment of the cap-and-trade fight [PDF] gets the diagnosis basically right: The radicalization of the Republican Party doomed the inside-game, partner-with-business strategy. Everything else followed from that.

When Skocpol pivots from diagnosis to prescription, however, things go a little hinky.

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Much of her piece involves a comparison of the cap-and-trade bill with the healthcare reform bill (“Obamacare”), which moved forward at roughly the same time. One failed and one succeeded. Why?

Skocpol ascribes a great deal of significance to Health Care for America Now, a networked organization linking up grassroots groups in all 50 states. HCAN kept the inside D.C. negotiators working on health care connected to the grassroots. It advocated for the “left edge of the possible” — as Skocpol put it in an interview with Brad Plumer today, it “allowed people to push for the health care bill without feeling like they were selling out” — but above all, it kept pressure on legislators to move forward in the face of setbacks and fear.

By contrast, she says, mainline enviros played an almost purely inside game. The USCAP agreement bound them to policy specifics and there was no outside group to push the bounds of the agreement to the left. Of course, there were left-leaning enviro groups that rejected USCAP altogether and advocated for a carbon tax or cap-and-dividend or whatever (the left edge of the impossible). But that’s not what HCAN did. It accepted the broad framework of Obamacare (rather than futilely calling for, say, single-payer) while pushing on its left edge (e.g., the public option). It marshaled grassroots pressure while ensuring that the grassroots and the insiders were pushing in the same basic direction.

Enviros will protest that they had ClimateWorks and Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection — and Skocpol acknowledges those groups. Nonetheless, she says that big green philanthropy “did not go to anything analogous to the HCAN undertaking in health reform.” The money went to capacity building for big environmental groups and to “public education” campaigns, not to grassroots organizing. This bit from Skocpol stings:

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This division of labor in the cap and trade effort — insiders work out legislation, pollsters and ad-writers try to encourage generalized public support — reflects the way most advocates and legislators in the DC world proceed nowadays. “The public” is seen as a kind of background chorus that, hopefully, will sing on key. Insiders bring in million-dollar pollsters and focus-group operators to tell them what “the public” thinks and to try to divine which words and phrases they should use in television ads, radio messages, and internet ads to move the percentages in answers to very general questions in national polls. It all has a very distanced, antiseptic quality to it, as powerful and very economically secure people look down on the American multitudes with a kind of bemused amazement and try to find poll results about public attitudes to wave in front of policymakers.

… from reports like this came nonpartisan messaging strategies that, in general and gauzy terms, mentioned unspecified “green jobs” and “American energy independence” as the reasons for ordinary citizens to acquiesce to sweeping climate change legislation, whose specifics those citizens were supposedly not to worry about too much.

By contrast, opponents of cap-and-trade told very specific and lurid stories about how much families would pay for this fancy legislation. In the end, the insiders-plus-pollsters strategy proved insufficient:

When encouragement from USCAP businesses proved to be far from enough in the Senate, the USCAP environmental groups had no other real arrows in their quivers. And since they were pretty much the entire ball game for carbon capping legislation, they had no equivalent of the nationally networked HCAN working on the left flank of the possible to push in their stead during the legislative end-game.

So what can we learn for next time? First, Skocpol insists there must be a next time: There must be carbon-capping legislation, as no amount of clean energy or innovation funding will be sufficient without it.

To begin with, she says, enviros should abandon all versions of the Insider Deal (and that includes the perpetual dream of a carbon tax slipped into a deficit Grand Bargain). Nothing that can get done that way will be sufficient. A more wholesale shift in American politics is required: “The political tide can be turned over the next decade only by the creation of a climate-change politics that includes broad popular mobilization on the center left.”

But enviros should also not imagine that building a movement is enough. They need a networked movement, yes, with roots in every state and real political muscle, but they need it to be built around policy approaches “that have something concrete to offer not just to big corporate players, but also to ordinary American citizens and to local and state groups.”

“The most powerful kind of reformist policymaking,” she says, “uses an initial law to create material benefits and normative claims that, in turn, reinforce and enlarge the supportive political coalition behind the new measure.”

What policy approach fits this bill? Why, cap-and-dividend, which Skocpol calls “a deal with the angels, not the devils.” She says “inside the Beltway types” want the money to go to D.C., where it can be doled out to favored constituencies. But the virtuous want the money to go to The People. Cap-and-dividend holds “the possibility of constructing a new political movement in the next few years … bring[ing] together environmental advocates, green businesses, and many unions and citizen associations to support the enactment of carbon-emissions caps and the subsequent ratcheting-up of the tax levels to ensure that the United States completes a transition to a green economy, with ordinary citizens reaping economic benefits along the way.”

And Skocpol concludes with that beatific vision, eerily echoing climate scientist James Hansen.

Now. Why do I say this prescription is a little hinky?

First, consider: Even if you believe that HCAN was instrumental in enforcing Democratic unity on health care, it was entirely Democratic unity. At no point did all this grassroots power flip any Republican votes. In the end, every Republican in the Senate voted against Obamacare. The bill only passed because there were, for a short time, 60 Democrats in the Senate — a wildly unusual and short-lived circumstance unlikely to be repeated in our lifetimes.

Obamacare required absolute Democratic unity and passed during a charmed cosmic convergence in which a) Dem unity was enough to get the bill past a filibuster, and b) Dem unity, mostly driven by implacable, unreasonable Republican opposition, was possible.

Can climate legislation replicate that convergence? In a word, no. For one thing, Dems no longer have 60 senators, and likely won’t any time soon, so Democratic unity is no longer enough to get past a filibuster. For another thing, Dem unity on carbon caps simply isn’t possible. Energy is a regional issue. There are Dems from big coal and oil states who will never agree to carbon caps.

So capping carbon requires some Republicans. But Republicans have gone full nihilist on environmental protections, so no Republican will vote for carbon caps. That’s the current state of affairs.

In that context, the HCAN comparison is not particularly helpful. Remember, HCAN didn’t flip any Republicans. And every Democrat already wanted a healthcare bill. HCAN’s job was just to keep nervous legislators moving forward. The movement Skocpol envisions rising up around cap-and-dividend — and there’s a bit of “assume a can opener” in her prescription — would have to fundamentally change political dynamics. It would have to be strong enough either to persuade Dems from coal states to support carbon caps or persuade Republicans to break party ranks and risk a primary challenge. Needless to say, that would require something much, much larger and louder than HCAN.

How can a movement like that be built? Plenty of people are trying, but their efforts aren’t adding up to anything close to what Skocpol’s talking about. Turns out it’s hard to organize around climate change!

Will cap-and-dividend really serve to spark that kind of mass movement? Here I fear Skocpol suspends her critical skills and indulges in a bit of fancy.

The premise of cap-and-dividend is that the government will steadily ratchet up the price of everything you buy — gas, food, plastic gewgaws, everything with carbon energy in the supply chain — and in exchange, cut you a check that makes up the difference. Will that appeal to the American public?

Skocpol joins with a number of other green wonks in assuming it will, because it makes so much darn sense. But you know what they say about assumptions. What little public opinion research there is on the question seems to indicate that the promise of dividends does not, in fact, Change Everything. The public simply doesn’t trust that government will cut checks as promised. And they generally prefer the money to be spent on clean energy or energy efficiency.

Much more research on the public’s attitude toward cap-and-dividend is needed, to be sure. But as it stands, there is virtually no evidence that adding dividends serves as some sort magic key to unlock public support for climate legislation. Certainly not enough evidence to bet the entire climate movement on it.

So if I’m skeptical of Skocpol’s answer, what’s mine? What is the road forward for climate hawks? Well, I’d begin by accepting that some problems simply have no solution. Right now, national climate legislation is one of those problems. It cannot pass until the GOP extremist fever is broken or the fundamental balance of power between fossil fuels and low-carbon energy changes. Both those outcomes are inevitable in the long run, but there’s no particular reason to think they’ll happen any time soon.

So the dream of comprehensive national legislation must be put aside for now. I certainly wouldn’t oppose a long-term push for cap-and-dividend under the banner of a New Social Security. Pressing the moral case is important. So is pushing the bounds of the possible. But I fear that Skocpol’s vision of cap-and-dividend sparking a shift in national politics is forlorn. The promise of government checks simply isn’t enough to create Tea Party levels of intensity and activism.

What is enough? I don’t presume to have a full answer to that question, but my sense is that creating constituencies will involve ground-level work at the local and state level. We need people engaged and invested now — the gauzy promise of future benefits is not enough. The reason Germany’s pioneering clean-energy efforts are so persistent in the face of resistance is that they have broad public support, and they have broad public support because ordinary Germans directly experience the benefits they produce.

A German-style national program of feed-in tariffs is unlikely, but 29 U.S. states have some form of renewable energy standard [PDF]. Climate hawks could begin by defending those programs and pushing more states to adopt them. The right knows that the real battles are at the state level now, which is why they are going after those standards as we speak.

It’s not just renewable energy standards. There are myriad local and state efforts underway on everything from energy research to efficiency standards to community aggregation to smart grids to everything in between. Every one of those programs is creating constituencies, person by person. They should be expanded and deepened. The more people who have a tangible stake in sustainability — economic or social — the more of a constituency there will be for national legislation when it becomes possible again.

The cap-and-trade fight was, above all, the quest for a comprehensive, national solution. It failed because American politics is not yet ready for a comprehensive, national solution. Skocpol’s proposal — adopting a new variant on the quest for a comprehensive, national solution — seems like little more than tilting familiar windmills. Changing American climate politics will be a ground-up affair, involving both community organizing and slow, painstaking legislative and regulatory work at the local and state level.

As Bill McKibben is fond of saying, physics does not bend before political expediency. But neither is it possible to wish away politics and culture. The work of changing politics and culture is now, as it always has been, a halting, frustrating, incremental slog. But there’s no way around it. The only way out is through.

For more on Theda Skocpol’s report on the failure of cap-and-trade, read a summary by Philip Bump and responses from Bill McKibben, Eric Pooley, Joe Romm, Mark Hertsgaard, and Mike Tidwell, plus a followup post from Skocpol herself.

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