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Are Dems Flubbing The Climate Debate?

Via Joe Romm, Roll Call detects more than a hint of disarray in the Democrats' political strategy for the Lieberman-Warner climate bill that's currently being debated on the Senate floor. The piece is subscriber-only, but here are the key tidbits:

"We are about to take up the most important fight of our generation, and we have no strategy, no message and no plan to get out of this," one senior Senate Democratic aide said.

Another senior Senate Democratic staffer echoed those sentiments: "Everyone knows this bill is going nowhere. The president is opposed to it. The House is not inclined toward action on this, and now we're going to spend valuable floor time on a bill that's going nowhere ... while Republicans are champing at the bit to accuse Democrats of raising gas prices." ...

It appears that the Democratic discord has less to do with the bill's specifics, the bulk of which most Democrats support, and more to do with the communications strategy -- or lack thereof -- employed to maximize any political gains if the bill fails to garner the 60 votes necessary to beat back a likely filibuster. ...

Many Democrats across the ideological spectrum foresee a public relations disaster looming, given that whip counts show that not even a majority of senators -- less than 45 by most aides' counts -- are likely to vote for Boxer's substitute, which was authored by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.).

Lieberman-Warner won't survive a White House veto. It won't even get the 60 votes necessary to hurdle a filibuster. Virtually no one believes it will pass, save for (maybe) the ever-optimistic folks at Environmental Defense Fund. Moreover, environmentally speaking, it's just not a very good bill. So why did the leadership bring it to the floor this year? The most plausible explanation I've heard is that kicking off this debate now would force various senators to pay attention to climate-change issues and get their staffers thinking through the actual policy questions, so that when 2009 ushers in a greener White House and bluer Senate, Congress can "hit the ground running." Of course, that comes to naught if, as per Roll Call's anonymous gripers, this bit of Kabuki all ends up being a disaster politically.

So have the Dems done a good job of framing this legislative battle? In the press, at least, the debate seems to get cast as one between environmentalists who want to save the polar bears and conservatives who care about the heavy costs to an already-bruised economy. And that's created an opening for conservatives like Mississippi's Thad Cochran to exclaim that the climate bill will be "especially harmful to lower-income families." (Indeed, every single Republican in the floor debate today has, miraculously, discovered a newfound concern for the working class.)

Dems have tried to counter that line, albeit with scattered success. Oil and gas prices, they'll argue, are going to continue to rise for the foreseeable future, likely quite dramatically, and those pump prices aren't getting any less painful. The notion that we can drill our way out of this mess has always been a ludicrous fantasy—the only way out is to unhitch the U.S. economy from fossil fuels. I'll just add that, from what I've seen on the state level, environmentalists there have become quite adept at talking about the benefits of climate action that go beyond "merely" saving the planet—everything from green jobs to health to energy stability. Partly as a result, statehouses have passed a decent number of climate bills to date. It's just not clear that those tactics have bubbled up to the federal level.

P.S. For the truly masochistic among us, here's a page with videos of all the climate speeches on the Senate floor today. And Daniel Weiss offers up a handy list of the most common arguments against climate legislation (along with rebuttals, most of them convincing).

P.P.S. Dave Roberts has some great thoughts on framing. 

--Bradford Plumer