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More On Presidential Priorities

The other day, Brad raised the question of what domestic policies the next president should pursue first. I feel like I should begin by noting that there's an obvious vanity problem with taking a strong position on what the next president's top priorities should be. Spend a great deal of time studying, reading, growing passionate about any issue and you're bound to feel, at least to some extent, that everybody should be at least passionate about it too.That said, I think the climate is categorically different from just about every other issue an American president could possibly tackle, and I want to flesh out (in a few posts, probably) exactly why.

We've all but reached the point at which the next administration will have its first big policy fight set for it in advance. (That is, of course, if the next president is a Democrat.) John Edwards set the tone during the primaries by prioritizing health care and releasing a major mandate-based universal health care plan right up front. After he dropped out, health care remained the domestic issue at the center of the campaign--it became and remains a major flashpoint between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And, just today, Elizabeth Edwards stepped into the fray to announce her support of Hillary's plan over Obama's (the latter of which lacks a mandate).

That's great news if you're a health wonk or if you're one of the millions of people that will presumably benefit years down the line if, say, President Obama makes health reform the flagship issue of his first term. But is that the correct priority?

I think there's a strong and, more importantly, unique case to be made that it's not. Each of these points is worthy of grappling with at greater length in separate blog posts (or lengthy magazine articles or white papers or books), but here's why I think the next president should treat climate change the way I assume a President Gore would treat climate change:

1). The timeline: There's no denying that America's health care system is in crisis (FUBAR?) and that America needs (and Americans deserve) universal health coverage of some kind, and soon. But the health care crisis, as an issue, is "pressing" in a markedly different way than is the climate crisis. If it takes, say, 20 or 50 years (as opposed to, say, five) to universalize coverage in the United States, it will, among other important things, be a tragedy for the people who suffer (and, yes, die) as a consequence. But, as Brad noted in the post I linked to above, if even 10 years pass before global warming is addressed, it could trigger an irreversible tragedy that affects everybody, but particularly the most vulnerable people, on the planet. There is no fixing this problem later rather than sooner.

2). It's often suggested that the president who pushes for and signs a universal health care bill in America will create a legacy issue for his or her party for a generation or more--and I think this is true to some extent. But what's almost always overlooked in that calculus is that the UHC policies on offer right now do not even closely resemble the politically-proven and outcome-effective government-provided systems in Europe and elsewhere. They entail, instead, requiring Americans to enter into a business relationship with profit-driven private companies with a proven track record of finding ways not to provide care for the ill. I'm in one of those relationships right now by choice but if I was in it by government fiat, I'm not exactly sure I would be extremely grateful to the party that spearheaded the law. (A hunch: If President Sarkozy proposed replacing the French health care system with a Ron Wyden-style individual mandate system, he'd soon find his offices on the exploding end of one or 100 Molotov cocktails.)

3). By contrast, it's often suggested that a comprehensive climate change remedy will be politically difficult, if not suicidal, and that the issue simply lacks the salience right now to be successful, let alone a top priority for the next commander in chief. There's some truth to that, I think. It's not most Americans' top priority, for instance, And there will be costs. Many will notice them. Some will even associate those costs with the cap-and-trade scheme that triggered them, and will hold the responsible party...well, responsible. But that's not anything at all like political suicide, and it almost purposefully ignores the long-term benefits of a global warming policy (bullet trains, energy efficiency, urban renewal, and on and on) that could very well constitute a legacy for progressivism that's just as big as universal health care would. Possibly greater.

And, of course, lacking a Congress as heavily Democratic and in sync with the next president as Lyndon Johnson's was with him, it's difficult to imagine that we'll get both Universal Health Care and a sustainable climate regime in the next eight years. So it might very well come down to a choice between one and the other. That's my quick rationale for choosing global warming. Is it just the vanity of an environmentalist, or is climate change really the correct priority for a responsible president?

--Brian Beutler