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Did The White House Kill The Climate Bill?

In this week's New Yorker, Ryan Lizza has a long, truly excellent reported piece on how the climate bill died in the Senate. The big question is to what extent the White House deserves the blame:

“I believe Barack Obama understands that fifty years from now no one’s going to know about health care,” the lobbyist said. “Economic historians will know that we had a recession at this time. Everybody is going to be thinking about whether Barack Obama was the James Buchanan of climate change.”

Now, as Jonathan Zasloff notes, this isn't the most precise historical analogy of all time. Buchanan took paralysis and incompetence to a whole different level. And Obama is hardly the only (or even the main) person at fault for the collapse of the climate bill. Still, as Lizza's piece details, the White House did make a number of serious blunders during the climate-bill fight. Perhaps the biggest was when Obama announced that he would open up new coastal areas for offshore drilling and issue new loan guarantees for nuclear power. Both were seen as moves to placate conservatives. Trouble was, it was a terrible negotiating tactic—Lindsey Graham, John Kerry, and Joe Lieberman were trying to dangle those provisions to lure Republicans votes for their climate bill. Instead, Obama just gave them away for free. Worse, the White House didn't even consult with the three senators before undercutting them.

On top of that, there was the mysterious episode when unnamed White House officials suggested to Fox News that Lindsey Graham supported a gas tax. It wasn't true and the rumor caused political heartburn for the one Republican who was sticking his neck out to pass a climate bill. Finally, when Harry Reid frazzled the whole climate push by announcing that he wanted to do immigration first, the White House never stepped in to resolve the dispute. Part of this appears to be David Axelrod's doing:

The long and brutal health-care fight had caused a rift in the White House over legislative strategy. One camp, led by Phil Schiliro, Obama’s top congressional liaison, was composed of former congressional aides who argued that Obama needed to insert himself in the legislative process if he was going to pass the ambitious agenda that he had campaigned on. The other group, led by David Axelrod, believed that being closely associated with the messiness of congressional horse-trading was destroying Obama’s reputation.

Granted, it's hard to say whether more White House involvement would have gotten the bill passed. My own sense is that Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman had a decent legislative strategy, but one that relied on a whole bunch of long-shot events going their way. And that's always a dubious prospect. Cap-and-trade, for instance, needed support from Olympia Snowe, who comes across in the piece as someone enamored of her own role as a Senate swing vote who can extract lots of concessions but who doesn't have much interest in actually passing worthwhile legislation.

More broadly, there's a case to be made that major climate policy will never pass so long as it hinges on this or that senator or legislative tactic. Instead, there has to be a major sea change in public opinion before anything will pass. As Dave Roberts noted a few weeks ago, global warming has long been seen as a mere environmental concern: "It needs to take its place alongside the economy and national security as a priority concern of American elites across ideological and organizational lines. It needs to become a shared concern of every American citizen regardless of ideological orientation or level of political engagement. That is the only way we can ever hope to bring about the urgent necessary changes."

Maybe so. Though it's worth adding that the White House—and Democrats in general—rarely fought a public battle for the climate bill. Polling showed that the phrase "cap-and-trade" was unpopular (or confused voters), so liberals stopped saying it. In the end, Republicans owned the phrase, and were able to convince a decent portion of the public that "cap-and-trade" is this horrible device that will leave you lampless surrounded by piles of dead puppies. There was a strange reluctance by Obama to even try to make the public case that a) global warming is an enormous problem and b) tackling it will be a lot easier than we think, and will bring associated benefits like cleaner air.

Now, in its defense, the Obama administration has taken what unilateral steps it can on energy and climate: The EPA has been drawing up greenhouse-gas regulations and setting sweeping new fuel-economy standards, while the stimulus bill had billions of dollars for clean energy projects. There's still a good case that those EPA regulations could be more impactful than commonly thought—once the agency starts cracking down on polluters, the coal and utility industries are going to demand congressional action. Of course, it remains to be seen whether that entails a more flexible cap on carbon pollution or just a repeal of EPA regulations, in which case we're back at square one.

(Flickr photo credit: Sean Posey)