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Should Obama Have Done Climate Instead Of Health Care?

In a line that I suspect we'll be hearing frequently, David Brooks writes today, "The decision to do health care before energy is now looking extremely unfortunate." I certainly agree that passing energy legislation would have been preferable to passing health care reform -- delaying climate legislation carries irreversible costs in a way that delaying health care reform does not.

But was energy legislation ever politically feasible? It's not right now. Brooks implies that if Obama had done energy first and prioritized it, it would have passed. This assumption seems highly dubious. Health care reform was a "mature" issue -- most industry groups had been coaxed into understanding the status quo was untenable, and it had evolved into a core policy commitment of the Democratic Party. The concept of reform enjoyed wide public support, and the Republican Party was no longer able to insist on maintaining the status quo.

Climate change is very different. Most Americans don't think carbon emissions are a major problem, and many interest groups still oppose reform wholesale. Numerous Democrats in Congress -- generally those in states with major carbon-emitting industries -- flatly oppose any serious limits on carbon emissions, making the math of Senate passage dubious. Almost all Republicans, meanwhile, flatly deny that carbon emissions are a problem -- either the science is a hoax or the problem isn't worth addressing.

It's also worth keeping in mind that any serious climate bill will impose far more dramatic changes on society than health care reform did. If you think the tea party response to health care reform was hysterical, imagine what the right could do with a bill that would effect every home and business in America.

It's possible that President Obama could have won over some Democrats if he staked his presidency on energy the way he staked it on health care reform. On the other hand, you'd also see Republicans closing ranks in an effort to break Obama like they did on health care. And David Brooks would be writing sad columns about how the climate bill was no longer worth passing and both parties had turned toward extremism.