Earlier this month, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Democrat Senator Ed Markey introduced a resolution calling for a Green New Deal. Numerous Democrats signed on as co-sponsors, including five declared presidential candidates.
As we now know, the plan is very ambitious, calling for the US to generate 100 per cent of its electricity through “clean, renewable, zero-emission energy sources” and upgrade “all existing buildings in the United States” within 10 years. The GNR also includes goals that are, at best, tangentially related to climate, such as union rights, a job guarantee, and universal healthcare. An FAQ Ocasio-Cortez’s office posted online and sent to media outlets added “economic security to all who are unable or unwilling to work,” but Ocasio-Cortez then said that was a mistake and retracted it.
Few experts find these goals remotely plausible, and the Green New Deal doesn’t explain how to pay for them, but advocates say this isn’t a problem. They’re not designing legislation: they’re laying down markers, sending a signal to voters that they want to fight climate change, expanding the boundaries of debate. Think of it like a negotiation: open by asking for too much so you can “settle” for what you wanted all along. And the country’s talking about it more now, isn’t it?
But talking about something isn’t enough to make it happen.
Green New Deal supporters don’t seem to realise it, but they’re following the Republicans’ failed healthcare strategy. For eight years, the GOP vowed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare). They kept the details vague, promising more choice and better care for less money. It got people talking and helped them win elections. But without a plausible plan, they failed to repeal Obamacare despite controlling both houses of Congress.
If Democrats really believe climate change is a serious threat, they should follow Obama’s strategy for passing the Affordable Care Act instead.
No matter what one thinks of the policy itself, Obamacare was politically brilliant. Its architects recognised that Bill Clinton’s inability to pass universal healthcare in the 1990s—an ambitious goal that expanded the parameters of debate, failed, and led to no movement on healthcare for two decades—came about because Clinton picked too many fights at once.
Obama set ambitious but plausible goals—expanding health insurance coverage and adding healthcare regulations—and, instead of trying to beat every health industry group at once, Obama co-opted them. Insurance companies got millions more customers funded by government subsidies, reducing their desire to fight new regulations. Hospitals and other providers got millions of insured patients, reducing the amount of money they’d lose treating the uninsured in the emergency room, and agreed to cut Medicare prices in response. Even with these agreements, Obamacare faced powerful opposition, and it barely passed, despite Democrats controlling both houses of Congress.
But now it’s the law.
Any policy that tries to reduce America’s carbon emissions will have to take on oil companies, businesses that rely on cheap, dirty energy—such as Koch Industries—taxpayers who worry about government spending, and Americans who worry about higher energy costs (which includes a lot of drivers).
A December 2018 study by the Yale Program on Climate Change found that, while 69 per cent of Americans are at least somewhat worried about climate change, only 28 per cent would pay $10 per month to fight it. Getting any climate bill through Congress will be incredibly difficult, even if Democrats win back the White House and Senate.
The Green New Deal compounds this problem by including non-climate issues, such as universal healthcare. Fossil fuel companies are powerful. Health insurance, pharmaceutical, healthcare provider, and medical device companies are powerful. Progressives lament that corporate power creates roadblocks to their desired policies, but decided to take on multiple powerful industries at once rather than trying to divide and conquer.
Even worse, the Green New Deal rollout gave political opponents ammo. Sending out a document promising benefits to people “unwilling to work,” even if it was a mistake, tees up attack ads warning that “Democrats want to take your hard-earned money and give it to people who could work, but don’t feel like it.”
Democrats typically argue that Republicans will demagogue the issue no matter what Democrats say, which is both true and beside the point. What matters most is not what politicians say, but what people believe. Political opponents will attack anything. But their attacks resonate more with voters, businesses, and public officials when they can cite documents sent to the media and resolutions sponsored in Congress.
Vague, ambitious proposals might help politicians win elections. But they don’t help — and might even hinder — subsequent efforts to pass laws, with different factions attached to different versions, causing infighting and disillusion.
If Democrats really care about the issue, they should use the 2020 primaries to design and rally behind a detailed plan focused exclusively on climate change.
Political constraints are real, even if we wish they weren’t. And the politics of climate change are already hard enough.
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