What the government shutdown can tell us about the politics of climate legislation

This past Friday, the Diane Rehm show had a discussion about the recent shutdown of the Federal Government as Republicans tried to defund the Affordable Care Act.

There was a brief exchange that illustrates a dynamic I have been harping on for years, with respect to the idea of getting Republicans to vote for climate legislation. The panel is talking about the shutdown and the goal to defund the American Care Act, but the dynamic discussed would apply equally to voting for some sort of cap and trade, carbon tax, or fee and dividend program to cut domestic emissions.

Lori Montgomery:  We’ve reported, you know, endlessly, ad nauseam that Boehner himself, you know, told his rank and file not to try to fight Obamacare on the government funding bill. That was his preference. But you had this campaign led largely by outside groups, like the Jim DeMint-run Heritage Foundation and Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee, who are Tea Party-backed guys. All summer, they were beating the drum against Obamacare. And they turned the heads of enough Republicans that Boehner could not proceed with a clean CR.

Ari Shapiro:  Lori… referenced outside groups which are a huge factor on this, which has gone under-remarked upon. Any Republican who acknowledges reality, that Obamacare is not going to be repealed, that at some point government funding is going to have to go into effect, that they probably will not get their fullest of demands. Any Republican who comes out and says that right now has a target painted on their back by some of these conservative groups that are very intent on funding primary challengers to force Republicans to adhere to this ideology that says we won’t budge.

[S]o many of these Republicans represent these blood-red districts where the demographic trends are going in the opposite direction from the rest of the country. The rest of the country is getting more diverse. It’s getting younger. These districts are getting more white. They’re getting older.

They represent districts where Romney beat Obama by a huge margin. And so the American people that they are representing do not necessarily look like the rest of the American people, and they have no incentive to negotiate with Democrats because that just means they’ll get primaried and kicked out in the next election.

Jeff Mason:  Well, and exactly. It also means that they won’t get punished for what some people think is really irresponsible behavior. It’s quite the contrary. What they’re seeing is that their political base is quite happy with the government shutdown and quite happy with the stand they’re taking on the Affordable Care Act.

Image courtesy of Flickr user “Fibonacci Blue”, used under Creative Commons

So we’re left with this. Even though there are Republicans who were amenable to funding the government rather than shutting it down as a last ditch attempt to sabotage health care legislation, they are constrained by outside interest groups who will primary them at the first sign of ‘appeasement’, and they’re also seated in districts with an increasingly fringe constituency, who are scared, angry and feel like they have lost control of the country.

The same seems to be true for the time being on climate legislation. Polling shows that while people don’t like what they imagine “ObamaCare” to be, they actually quite like the specific provisions of the actual Affordable Care Act. Similarly, polling shows that climate change isn’t perceived as a terribly immediate problem for the average voter, but specific actions relating to mitigating climate change are quite popular. But any Republican that shows a willingness to work on climate legislation is risking ideologically/industry-backed outside groups funding a primary challenge from their right, and their constituents are increasingly out of touch with the country on support for common sense actions on climate.

There are some people who would have you believe that this opposition to the Affordable Care Act, as well as climate legislation, is an organic, bottom up, ‘will of the people’ type thing. The irony of course is that the centerpiece of the Affordable Care Act was a conservative/Republican idea created as a market-based alternative to feared universal health care. Similarly, cap and trade was a conservative, market-based alternative to command and control options for pollution regulation, and until relatively recently, embrace of cap and trade (or a carbon tax) was a standard Republican position. The opposition to the Affordable Care Act and climate legislation does not stem from some organic, principled, groundswell of belief about what is best for the country, but rather is a form of tribal identity politics, which is fueled by special interests and think tank astroturfing and discourse policing.

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3 responses to “What the government shutdown can tell us about the politics of climate legislation

  1. What is wrong with tribal identity?

    • I didn’t say anything was per se. But a reasoned objection based on coherent worldview and rational objections is not the same as objection based on identity politics being manipulated by front groups for industry interests and radical ideologues.

      • If a politician speaks to a tribal group and says they should reward their friends and punish their enemies, isn’t this being manipulated by powerful special interests? I would call it a spoils system, paid for by taxpayers, i.e., revenue source.

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