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The Politics of Climate Change Regulations Aren't Anything Like Obamacare

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

For obvious reasons, Republicans want reporters to believe that the Obama administration's new proposal to regulate existing coal plants will be as politically damaging to Democrats as the Affordable Care Act was four years ago. They also, just as obviously, want Democrats to believe that. And to the extent that some coal state Democrats will oppose the EPA's plan, and may even vote to pre-empt it in Congress, they can marshal evidence that the issue divides Democrats and unites Republicans.

But anyone who buys into the assumption that these proposed rules will "rival the battle over health care" is making a big, obvious error, and another smaller one.

First, Obamacare's enduring public opinion problem isn't a reflection of the public's clear-eyed assessment of the law and its consequences. It's the legacy of a bitter year-long legislative fight, which pitted Democrats against each other, and allowed Republicans to define the issue from the sidelines in an ugly and dishonest way. That the country was experiencing a massive economic crisis to which Congress appeared (and in a real way was) irresponsive only fed the public's dissatisfaction.

These proposed regulations are nothing like that. They will outrage powerful stakeholders, and thus provide Republicans a potent campaign trail talking point, particularly in coal states. But Democrats in those states will be free to oppose them, too. And crucially, though the actual rule won't be finalized for at least another year, the tussle over particulars will play out on a much smaller stage than the U.S. Congress. In that sense, it'll be more like the dread fluorescent light bulb "controversy," which drives right wingers, and only right wingers, insane, than like Obamacare, which drew widespread public dissatisfaction. As a general matter, the public supports reducing emissions.

But the proposal also lands near the end of GOP primary season, which is slightly inconvenient for any Republicans who veered into climate denialism in the past few months, or have been parked there for some time. The emerging line from Republicans, which borrows from an old Marco Rubio gaffe, is that they're unqualified to expound on the science of climate change. But this is actually a retreat from an earlier willingness to mock liberals who believe the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists. And it now represents the left-bound of what Republicans can possibly say about the issue, because the party derives so much political energy from voters who plainly deny the science and treat belief in it as an expression of statism or corruption.

Everyman John Boehner now says he must recuse himself for lack of expertise from the "debate" over whether human greenhouse gas production is contributing to climate change. But back in 2009 he laughed at the premise, invoking cow farts for added effect.

Mitch McConnell hails from Kentucky, where it's a safe bet that anti-coal regulations will face strong resistance. But when he was still mired in a primary campaign, he played footsie with outright climate change denial. "For everybody who thinks it's warming, I can find somebody who thinks it isn't," McConnell told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "Even if you conceded the point, which I don't concede, but if you conceded the point, it isn't going to be addressed by one country. So the idea is, we tie our own hands behind our back and others don't. I think it's beyond foolish and real people are being hurt by this."

That position is a tick to the right of "I'm not a scientist, man." And though I imagine he and other Republicans will continue to make developing countries a central element of their overall critique, I do wonder whether McConnell will have to fall back on Boehner's willfully-ignorant agnosticism now that he's speaking to the broader electorate and not just GOP primary voters—even in Kentucky. In states like New Hampshire and Michigan, where Republicans are long shots to pick up Senate seats, the pressure to buck the conservative position will be even greater. And as we round the corner from the 2014 elections to the GOP presidential primary, and from today's EPA proposal to implementation of a final rule, Republicans will face familiar pressure to slip right back into McConnell-esque pandering, only to find that reactionary anti-science is a losing proposition with the broader electorate.