1 march 2019

The Green New Deal and the Strength of Ambiguity

The proposal is forcing Democrats to pick a side and propelling the environment into a top 2020 campaign issue.

By Alan Neuhauser Staff Writer, U.S. News & World Report, March 1, 2019,

When Sen. Dianne Feinstein, one of the most powerful Democrats on Capitol Hill, was confronted last week in her California office by school children and teenagers demanding that she vote for the Green New Deal, it became perhaps the clearest signal yet that questions about the sweeping climate proposal by a first-term lawmaker will continue to dog Democrats as the country hurdles into the 2020 election cycle.

The plan, put forward by firebrand freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., shortly after she took office last month, has achieved a saliency that other climate measures like cap-and-trade and carbon pricing never came close to achieving. Outlined in a 14-page resolution introduced Feb. 7 in the House and Senate, its name has been invoked everywhere from rallies in Colorado and California to a pipeline protest in New York – even as it remains, in many ways, more a catchphrase for most voters than a fully articulated proposal.

The Green New Deal is not yet a litmus test for Democrats, like access to abortion services or, perhaps, universal health care. But a growing share of voters and environmental groups are calling on the party's presidential candidates to support it in a way they haven't done for previous environmental proposals – elevating the status of the issue in the 2020 race.

A poll conducted last month by the League of Conservation Voters, for example, found that 83 percent of Democratic primary voters in early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire back the Green New Deal – the same share that support moving to 100 percent clean energy by 2050. And the League now says it is pushing Democrats to rally behind the plan – whose popularity may well vault climate and the environment into the gold circle of election topics like the economy and national security.

"We have seen in polling over a number of cycles that environmental issues can be very influential, but they have to be used for them to be influential," says Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist and president of the Mellman Group. "So they're lying there waiting for someone to pick them up and use them. And if someone does, they're going to find them to be very powerful. That's what you're seeing with the Green New Deal. Without regard to the specific content, are you for something that is green and a new deal leading us to a clean energy economy? That's all very powerful."

The Green New Deal's broad scope – and lack of specifics – has drawn skepticism from senior Democrats such as House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, not to mention Feinstein, who told the children in her office that she couldn't vote for the deal.

However, among vocal members of the voting public newly galvanized by a new wave of populism that's sweeping both the left and the right, the Green New Deal's ambiguity has become one of its greatest strengths.

"Because of its vagueness and generality, people can invest a whole lot of different things in it. So some people understand it as one thing, other people understand it as something else, and that all works as something that's labeled as Green New Deal," Mellman says.

It helps that the Green New Deal is being championed by one of the most closely watched lawmakers on Capitol Hill. And in naming her proposal, she broke a seeming Democratic tradition of smothering even the party's most ambitious plans with bland titles, such as 2017's proposed and forgotten economic agenda, the "Better Deal."

"Some people understand it as one thing, other people understand it as something else, and that all works as something that's labeled Green New Deal."

"It's being advanced by someone, Ocasio-Cortez, who's very dynamic, very popular, knows how to use social media effectively, and it's a lot more of an interesting name than carbon tax or carbon price
," Mellman says.

The Green New Deal is set to come up for a vote in the Senate before the August recess. But with Republicans in firm control of the body and the White House occupied by President Donald Trump – who has been slow to accept climate change and has worked to prop up the coal sector – the measure stands no chance of success. Rather, the expected vote is widely seen as a bid by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to force Democrats on the record over a divisive legislative package that critics say would cost as much as $93 trillion in the next decade.

The proposal, though, is not likely to disappear before the 2020 presidential election, especially as groups on the left push lawmakers to back the plan.

Three quarters of Democratic midterm voters in a Gallup poll last November ranked climate change an "extremely" or "very important" issue. By comparison, only 27 percent of Republican midterm voters did the same.

Meanwhile, national and international bodies from the United Nations to the United States warned that, even as the impacts of climate change are being felt now, nations are halting or even reversing course in their efforts to address the growing crisis – and have as few as 12 years to avert its worst impacts.

Already, enormous wildfires in California last fall were among the deadliest and most destructive on record, with footage of the flames at times commanding outsize coverage on cable news networks. Last summer was also the fourth-hottest on record, behind 2015, 2016, and 2017, and swaths of the Midwest, Southwest and West Coast are facing persistent droughts caused by warming temperatures.

"People are looking out their window and seeing what is happening with climate change," says Tiernan Sittenfeld, the league's senior vice president of government affairs. "We support the Green New Deal, we encourage elected officials to do so as well. The climate crisis is one of epic proportions, and now is the time to be ambitious and challenge ourselves."

Perhaps as a result, the new focus on climate issues – particularly by younger politicians – reflects a growing recognition that the environment, once regarded as a tertiary election issue rarely if ever mentioned in debates or major addresses, is one that can galvanize voters.

Whether such a platform can appeal to more conservative Democrats, let alone Republican voters in a general election, is an open question. More than half of self-described liberal and moderate Republicans now accept the scientific consensus that global warming is occurring and that it is caused mostly by human activity, a 14-point leap from just seven months earlier, according to a poll last May by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Such views among conservative Republicans jumped by 5 points.

However, experts suspect that these shifts were largely driven by political winds, not new understandings of climate science: With a Republican in the White House, conservative outlets such as Fox News have focused far less on climate change than during the Obama administration, which championed efforts to reduce global warming.

In November 2008, for example, just as the previous Republican president was nearing the end of his term, more than half of conservative Republicans accepted that climate change was occurring. By January, however, on the eve of President Barack Obama's inauguration, that share dropped to less than 30 percent.

For Democrats with their eyes on the White House in 2020, seeking to attract not only supporters on the left but also moderate voters and even Republicans disillusioned by Trump, such swings may dictate whether and how the Green New Deal becomes a litmus test.

"The way this thing is written, no Republican can ever be in support of something like the Green New Deal. And to get something passed, you need a congressional majority and the president. We're not going to have that if some of this far-fetched language is what the Democratic Party stands for," says H. Boyd Brown, who served on the Democratic National Committee during Obama's second term and now works as a lobbyist in South Carolina for the solar industry. "I don't think this needs to be a litmus test. It has good points in it, good goals in it. But at the end of the day, this shouldn't be some sort of, 'You've got to check this box to get the Democratic nomination.'"

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