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Clean energy is a growing political juggernaut. Should it leave climate change behind?

The public weighs in on clean energy.
The public weighs in on clean energy.

There's a new poll of eight key swing states out, and it shows that — surprise! — voters in swing states love clean energy.

Specifically, the poll (done by Hart Research on behalf of NextGen Climate Action) shows that 70 percent of swing state voters have a favorable reaction to the goal of 50 percent clean energy by 2030, including 54 percent of Republicans. Similar majorities support a target of 100 percent clean energy by 2050. Somewhat smaller majorities look favorably on several other clean energy policies, including upgrading the power grid and raising state renewable energy standards.

At this point, polls showing robust, bipartisan support for clean energy and pollution reduction are so common that they come as no surprise (see here, here, here, here, here, here, etc. forever). Americans love clean energy!

Most Americans, that is. The one demographic that remains steadfast in its support for fossil fuels and skepticism toward alternatives is — surprise! — Tea Party Republicans, i.e., hyper-conservative older white guys.

Why do the most ardent ideological conservatives oppose clean energy? Because for them, energy, like almost everything else, has become a part of the culture war. Partly that means they reject it simply because the left supports it. But specifically, among engaged partisans on both sides, energy has become inextricably bound to the climate change debate. That's part of why support is so high among self-identified liberals and why so many conservatives view it as a big-government boondoggle.

This poses interesting political strategy questions for both parties.

Republicans would be better off detaching clean energy from climate

On the Republican side, the current situation works well for the fossil fuel billionaires funding the fight against clean energy. And it works well for conservative media and activists, who are loath to agree or cooperate on anything with liberals.

But for Republican leaders, and the professional political class concerned with the party's electoral fortunes, it's more complicated. They cannot speak directly against fossil fuels; there's too much money involved. But clean energy is popular and growing, rapidly transitioning from niche to serious player in energy markets. Some of the states with the most installed wind and solar have Republican governors. Republican-led cities are investing in clean energy and transit. There's an economic and cultural shift underway, and if the right-wing base remains intransigent, it will be same-sex marriage all over again — the base will set the agenda, the whole GOP will be branded as backward and out of touch, and they'll get steamrolled.

Some conservatives seem to have caught on to this and are attempting to rehabilitate clean energy. If you look at billionaire conservative Jay Faison's website, purportedly devoted to convincing conservatives to accept climate change, you find that it is overwhelmingly devoted to the business-friendly benefits of clean energy.

Democrats would be better off keeping them attached

For the Democrats, it's a different and considerably more favorable set of choices.

One option would be to downplay climate change (which is seen as divisive) in favor of a focus on clean energy (which is more broadly popular), seeking to remove barriers to bipartisan cooperation. On this view, climate has become a stigma, a sticking point, and it would be better make progress on clean energy independent of it. Help conservatives get on board by meeting them where they are, as it were, instead of forcing them to accept climate change. This is one of the recommendations of the "Climate Pragmatism" stuff out of the Breakthrough Institute, along with more consultant memos and op-eds than I care to remember.

This would be a familiar strategy: triangulation, the tactical maneuver of choice for mainstream Democrats since 1992. It envisions setting aside differences and divisions and coming together around shared priorities. It hasn't worked during the Obama years, ever, not once, but who knows. Hope springs eternal.

A more ruthless Democratic strategist, one more concerned with winning than coming together, might counsel the opposite. If its association with climate change is preventing conservatives from embracing clean energy, then emphasize that association at every opportunity. Public opinion on clean energy is consistent, deep, and positive; public opinion on climate change is shallow and wishy-washy. The latter won't drag the former down; the former will lift the latter up. If Democrats can connect climate change with a more positive story of innovation, economic opportunity, and national purpose, they can cleanse it of some of the dour, hectoring tone it has taken on for many Americans.

Meanwhile, climate will act as a force field keeping the right away, which will allow Democrats to own both issues for a generation. (And in a generation, they will almost certainly be top national priorities.) Dems will win victories for clean energy not by persuading or cajoling conservatives to their side, tiptoeing around climate, but by coupling national peril with national opportunity, without hedging or apology, confident that they are on the right side of history. Republicans will be forced to chase them instead of obstructing them.

It will be interesting to watch Hillary Clinton navigate this issue. Her first sally indicates that she is going with the smarter strategy, headlining an ambitious clean energy goal but very much framing it as a response to climate change — keeping the two connected. Perhaps she and her advisers are taking a cue from Obama, who discovered that he got the most done, and was most popular, when he acted boldly (and unilaterally, if necessary) on liberal priorities instead of trimming his sails in hopes of conservative cooperation.

It will also be interesting to see, once we're past the Trump Circus, how the eventual Republican nominee treats the issue. The "moderate" candidates like Jeb Bush are already squirming on climate change, seeking a path between an increasingly embarrassing science denialism and a politically verboten discussion of serious climate policy. How will Bush approach energy? So far he seems to be taking the "remove all energy subsidies" line popular among conservative economists and politicians who are fully aware that renewable energy subsidies are vulnerable and fossil fuel subsidies really aren't.

Will clean energy get enough attention and momentum to demand more of him, or of whoever wins the GOP scrum? That would be a significant marker.

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