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Can Bernie Sanders push Clinton left on climate?

Sanders speaks for the trees.
Sanders speaks for the trees.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

In March 2007, John Edwards — remember him? — issued an ambitious, detailed agenda on climate and clean energy. His intention was to capture the left's affections and gain momentum going into a contentious Democratic primary fight with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Things didn't work out very well for Edwards (for which we can all give thanks), but his early boldness on climate did have an effect: shortly thereafter, Clinton and Obama both issued climate/energy plans that, while they differed in some details, matched Edwards's ambition. He helped establish a benchmark.

Now Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is trying to do the same, as he made clear to the Washington Post's Greg Sargent:

PLUM LINE: Should the Democratic nominee offer a platform [on climate change] that goes considerably farther than what [Obama] has done?

SANDERS: Yes.

PLUM LINE: What would that look like?

SANDERS: It would look like a tax on carbon; a massive investment in solar, wind, geothermal; it would be making sure that every home and building in this country is properly winterized; it would be putting substantial money into rail, both passenger and cargo, so we can move towards breaking our dependency on automobiles. And it would be leading other countries around the world.

PLUM LINE: You think the Democratic nominee should campaign on a platform like that?

SANDERS: Yes.

So can Sanders push Clinton on climate change the way Edwards pushed the field in 2008? The answer is, unfortunately, probably not.

Sanders is championing several positions that are incredibly popular outside the Beltway but invisible within it, e.g., expanding Social Security benefits and cracking down on big banks. On those issues, articulating widespread populist sentiment can push a mainstream Dem in the direction of ambition.

But climate isn't like those issues, at least not yet, and the political landscape has shifted considerably since 2008.

clinton-obama-edwards

Democratic presidential candidates US Sen. Hillary Clinton and US Sen. Barack Obama exchange remarks as John Edwards listens during a debate sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute at the Palace Theatre on Monday, January 21, 2008, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. (Photo by Randall Hill/Myrtle Beach Sun News/MCT via Getty Images)

The political landscape has changed since 2008

For one thing, Obama, Edwards, and Clinton were competing to work with a Democratic Congress, which meant that their grand policy ideas had at least some chance of being passed into law. There were high stakes; it was more than just an exercise in positioning.

Now, of course, the House is firmly in Republican hands, probably for a decade to come, which means that any truly ambitious climate agenda has a snowball's chance in hell of becoming law. No president — not Clinton, not Sanders, not the risen Christ — could persuade the House GOP to pass aggressive restrictions on carbon. So big talk on climate is mostly about positioning. (As Brad Plumer argues today, it actually does matter quite a bit what the next president does about climate, but mainly in the realm of defending and expanding EPA rules, which no candidate is likely to view as an effective campaign message.)

For another thing, Obama and congressional Democrats tried to put their climate agenda into law, and the effort failed, rather spectacularly. The cap-and-trade fiasco coincided with the rise of the Tea Party and convinced everyone in the Beltway that cap-and-trade particularly, and climate action generally, was dead, dead, dead for the foreseeable future. While carbon trading remains popular in greener states (and numerous jurisdictions around the world), it is anathema in Washington. That freeze is thawing somewhat, but only a little.

And finally, the 2008 primary was wide open — there was real doubt about who would win. This year, Clinton is overwhelmingly expected to be the nominee. Sanders's participation is entirely about pushing Clinton on a core set of issues. And Clinton's reaction to Sanders is entirely about messaging and setting herself up for the general. As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein argues, the best Sanders supporters can hope for is that his candidacy forces Clinton to make specific commitments on those issues.

Will Clinton follow Sanders on climate change?

The specific ideas Sanders is pushing are very different from the cap-and-trade systems the Dem candidates were pushing in 2008. The latter reflected a consensus among Big Business, mainstream green groups, and centrist Beltway wonks — an elite consensus. (An aside: I defended those cap-and-trade systems at the time and will defend them to this day, but nobody likes hearing grizzled veterans rehashing past battles.)

The items on Sanders's list reflect the desires of climate activists and wonks, the folks who devote themselves to the issue. The paradigm example is moving freight out of big trucks and onto rail, while electrifying rail travel — that's a longtime obsession of climate hawks, but as far as I know it has never even broken the surface of mainstream politics. Then there's the out-of-fashion idea of massive direct investments in clean energy, which Obama accomplished through the stimulus bill but no president is likely to support outside the context of a massive recession. There's a reason the advocacy group Climate Hawks Vote has ranked Sanders No. 1 on its list of climate champions in the Senate.

The one exception on Sanders's list is a carbon tax, which has at least a glimmer of bipartisan support, though support on the right is mainly confined to intellectuals and ex-policymakers (if there is a Republican in office who has endorsed a carbon tax, I'd like to hear about it).

The strategic decision facing Clinton is whether adopting some of these ideas — as opposed to simply expressing anodyne support of Obama's climate efforts and international climate talks — offers any political advantage.

Unfortunately, the analogy to Sanders's other obsessions doesn't really work. Breaking up banks, raising taxes on the rich, increasing Social Security benefits — all those things, invisible as they are in DC, are incredibly popular among voters. There's arguably a political advantage in capturing that populist terrain.

Public support for climate action, even on the left, remains fairly shallow. It's difficult to imagine more than a tiny faction of voters who will be excited by the prospect of moving freight to rail. At this point, Democratic voters expect their representatives to have climate on their agenda, but it's far from clear that getting into specifics, as opposed to mouthing generic warnings about The Legacy We Are Leaving Our Children, proffers any political advantage.

It is the nature of climate policy that everyone supports it in general, but the minute it becomes specific, a particular constituency finds it objectionable and mobilizes against it. The safest route for a Democratic candidate, facing a Republican who is likely to be an unreconstructed climate denialist, is simply to intone bromides about climate and leave it at that. If anything, Sanders' positions on climate are likely to help Clinton, by making whatever she supports look like centrism.

So yeah. It's nice that Sanders is going hard on climate. Great for him. But it is unlikely that Clinton will feel any particular pressure to match his ambition. There's danger down that road, and little political payoff.

Further reading: The next president can have a huge impact on climate policy — even without Congress

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