My buddy Matt Yglesias wrote an underappreciated book on foreign policy a few years ago, called Heads in the Sand. It was an insightful look at the knots into which Democrats tied themselves trying to outflank President Bush on national defense issues. One of the key points Matt made in that book was that good policy will often be good politics. Democratic leaders could have easily considered the meat of the case for war with Iraq, concluded that it was a bad idea, and opposed it. Instead, worried that outright opposition would make them appear weak, they prevaricated and ultimately backed the war effort. This turned out to be doubly bad for the party. Not only did it support a policy that was bad on its face, but when the inevitable failures mounted, their positioning prevented them from reaping political gains. In 2004, John Kerry couldn’t take full advantage of the fact that the president had embroiled the country in a costly mess in Iraq, because he himself had supported the mess (hoping to make himself look strong ahead of his presidential run).
I think the good policy makes good politics adage applies in many situations, but it seems increasingly appropriate where energy and climate policy are concerned. Indeed, Matt makes this case himself in his American Prospect column:
In principle, after all, a disaster of this magnitude should be a boon to progressives and progressive policy. Think back to the gasoline price spikes of 2008, and you’ll recall the right’s mantra of “drill, baby, drill” and Barack Obama’s thoughtful counterpoint about the need to find alternative sources of energy. The right thought it had a winning issue on this front. Had Obama stuck it out as a drilling skeptic, he’d be looking mighty vindicated today. Instead, the administration chose to offer expanded offshore drilling as a preemptive concession to the right in exchange for nothing in particular. This was supposed to shore up Obama’s political standing and demonstrate his reasonableness, but in the present context, it’s made it difficult to seize advantage of what could be a moment of opportunity.
If ever there was an important issue to find oneself on the right side of, climate change is it. Obama, being a smart man, knows the score. He’s seen the reports and is no doubt updated on the latest data by his staff. He’s well aware of the incredible damage and disruption that climate change will cause, and the likely human cost. And he knows that each year, these effects will only become more obvious.
So why not scream this to the heavens, or at least, in true Obama style, make the typical calm appeal to fact and the better parts of human nature? Obama used to be able to at least mention climate change within a broader appeal to a new energy strategy, but in much of the administration’s talk in the wake of the BP spill, and in last night’s speech especially, global warming didn’t merit a mention.
Maybe the Obama team has concluded that including climate change as part of the argument for a new energy policy reduces the likelihood of passing the policy. That doesn’t really make sense to me. Viewers and legislators hostile to a climate-oriented message are going to be just hostile to the arguments for conservation and alternative energy sources whatever they are. Mother nature has even been playing along; people are more receptive to warnings about climate change when the weather is hot, and god knows the weather is hot right now. Perhaps Obama figured it was best not to complicate the message by focusing on multiple arguments, but as the reviews make clear, it’s not like the climate-free message was a stunning rhetorical success. Meanwhile, the president conceded a huge moral argument.
There’s simply no good reason not to talk about climate change. It isn’t going away. The rising chorus of skeptics aren’t going to give up on their own; if facts could sway them they’d already be swayed. The only way to win the public over to the urgency of this crisis is to win the argument, and you can’t win an argument in which you don’t participate.
Humanity has an enormous problem on its hands. The president should have the good sense to acknowledge that and to speak that honest truth — that Americans are going to have to make some serious changes if they hope to avert an environmental, economic, and humanitarian catastrophe. Not talking about climate change isn’t making the issue go away, it isn’t making the issue easier to solve, and it sure isn’t doing anything for the administration politically. They might as well do the appropriate thing and speak openly, frequently, and forcefully about the challenge of global warming. And they should remember, you can’t profit from being on the right side of an issue if you aren’t on the right side of an issue.