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What Joe Biden was trying to say about the Green New Deal

His plan was inspired by it, but is not the same.

Joe Biden at the first debate in Cleveland on September 29.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was widely acknowledged to be, in the immortal words of CNN’s Dana Bash, a “shitshow.” Scarcely a full sentence or coherent thought was heard the entire night. Trump interrupted so often and told so many lies that Fox News moderator Chris Wallace was rendered ornamental. We should probably all just forget it as soon as possible. But before we do, it’s worth looking a little closer at one brief episode — since the Green New Deal popped up again Wednesday in the vice presidential debate.

To everyone’s surprise (it wasn’t on the advance list of topics), Chris Wallace asked a question about climate change. As is to be expected from a conservative, he framed it as a trade-off between the environment and the economy.

In the ensuing shouting, Trump accused Biden of supporting “the radical Green New Deal,” which he alleged would cost “$100 trillion.” (For those who are wondering, that number is from a ludicrous “study” of the GND by the right-wing American Action Forum.)

Biden responded, “The Green New Deal is not my plan.”

Then, just a few minutes later, he said, “The Green New Deal will pay for itself as we move forward.”

Then, minutes later, “No, I don’t support the Green New Deal.” He supports “the Biden plan, which is different than what [Trump] calls the radical Green New Deal.”

Minutes later, sleuths on the right turned up language on Biden’s website calling the Green New Deal a “crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face.”

Right-wing media worked furiously to make this a story, trying to start an intra-left feud by saying that Biden was repudiating the radical left.

It doesn’t seem to have worked. Climate activists, like Evan Weber, co-founder and political director of the Sunrise Movement, didn’t take the bait, perhaps because it was a little too obvious what Trump was trying to do.

Nonetheless, it’s worth spelling out exactly what’s going on here, because it’s part of a political dynamic that goes back decades — and may finally, at long last, be changing.

Republicans are working furiously to shore up the “environment versus economy” frame

Around the time of Ronald Reagan and the ascendance of movement conservatism, the GOP began lumping environmental policy into the same big bucket as all progressive social or economic policy: pie-in-the-sky dreams that would raise taxes and damage the economy.

Thanks to decades of subsequent repetition — often echoed by defensive Clinton-era Democrats — the “environment vs. economy” frame has become ubiquitous enough to seep out of politics into popular culture. Even people who claim to know very little about politics will have the impression, the feeling, that it’s true.

It was through that basic frame that climate change entered US politics. I’ve argued for years (2010, 2013) that climate is ill-suited to that frame, that calling it “environmental” serves to shrink and distort it in the public mind. But despite my best efforts, that’s how it was discussed for most of the 2000s and 2010s.

Climate advocates beat their heads against the frame for years, talking about “green jobs,” new industries, and competing with China in global markets. Then-Rep. Jay Inslee co-wrote a whole book about the green economy back in 2013.

Thanks in no small part to the youth climate movement and the Green New Deal resolution, formally introduced by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) in February 2019, that frame finally seems to be giving way, at least among Democrats, at least on climate change. Within the party, the center of gravity on climate has moved considerably to the left and there is more policy alignment than at any time in recent memory.

As conservative tropes lose their potency outside the bubble, those inside the bubble double and triple down on them. So it is with the Green New Deal.

From the outset, the right has worked frantically to define the GND as the most unrealistic, socialist environmental plan yet. As I wrote last April, in the months following the introduction of the GND, Fox News discussed it more than CNN and MSNBC combined and its viewers evinced the highest awareness of it.

gnd awareness
Change Research online survey March 4-6, 2019, of 1,384 likely 2020 voters in the US.
Javier Zarracina/Vox

In the same poll, only 1 percent of Fox viewers were undecided about their opinion of the GND; 91 percent opposed it.

The right seized on the GND and defined it in the most lurid terms — it would ban cows and planes, take away everyone’s SUVs, and cost “one-hundred TRILLION dollars.” They no longer have any particular need for sophistication or mainstream credibility outside their echo chamber, so the GND has simply become a trigger for every moldy critique of environmentalism that the right had laying around, in its silliest possible terms. “They want to take out the cows!” Trump said. (Similarly, Joe Biden is going to destroy suburbs, the Second Amendment, the middle class, and God.)

During the vice presidential debate, Vice President Mike Pence brought it up, saying: “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris want to raise taxes, bury our economy over a $2 trillion Green New Deal.” Later, he added, “They would impose the Green New Deal, which would crush American energy, would increase the energy costs of American families in their homes and literally would crush American jobs.”

The GND of the right-wing imagination bears virtually no resemblance to the spirit or language of the thing itself. It has become a symbol, a vessel for stale resentments.

The Green New Deal is a symbol on both sides now

Of course, the GND has become a symbol on the left, too. It was never a specific set of policy proposals, and there is, to this day, no “official” GND policy agenda. Numerous nonprofit research and advocacy groups have released their own versions; the Green Party has a version; various international groups and groups in other countries have their own versions.

The GND is not a particular set of policy proposals but an idea: an ambitious effort equal to the challenge of climate change, led by the generation that will suffer most from it, free of the political dogmas and self-imposed restraints of neoliberalism and focused on equity and justice. Different groups and constituencies will fill in policy details based on their individual interests and concerns.

It’s the idea of the GND, the positive symbol, that has remained resilient in the face of concerted right-wing attacks. And it is the idea that Biden cites as his inspiration.

But he cannot, and should not, simply adopt it as his own.

A protester holding a placard during the Sunrise NYC-organized rally in support of the Green New Deal outside Senator Chuck Schumer’s (D-NY) New York City office, April 30, 2020
A protester holding a placard during the Sunrise NYC-organized rally in support of the Green New Deal outside Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s New York City office, April 30, 2020.
Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Green New Deal has given birth to a whole litter of policy proposals

Insofar as the GND has any policy content, it suggests ambitious action in three areas: stringent standards to accelerate decarbonization in key sectors like electricity, buildings, and transportation; large-scale, job-creating public investments in clean energy projects, green infrastructure, and vulnerable communities; and an overall focus on justice, such that the communities most at risk, from either climate change or the clean energy transition, receive the most assistance.

This basic recipe — standards, investments, and justice (SIJ) — is what Biden refers to on his website as a “crucial framework for meeting climate challenges.” It is the framework that inspired, to one degree or another, virtually every climate plan released across the left over the past few years, from nonprofit green and environmental justice groups to union groups to Congress to presidential candidates.

It is the framework that inspired Biden’s beefed-up climate plan. He didn’t take everything from the original GND — he’s not offering a job guarantee or food and housing guarantees — but he put together a credible version of the basic SIJ framework.

Nonetheless, he would rightly be seen as presumptuous and insincere if he simply called his plan the “Green New Deal.” The GND is, and ought to remain, its own thing.

Biden needs to steer between the symbols, toward policy

Biden’s political challenge, in the debates and the race more broadly, is to steer clear of the symbol that the GND has become on both sides.

He needs to avoid getting tangled up with the dark, garish fantasy that Fox News has made of the GND — the one with no hamburgers, the one Trump kept yelling about onstage at the debate. Believe it or not, there are wavering, undecided voters out there who might hold that against him. It feeds the “Biden is controlled by the radical left” narrative being pushed so hard on conservative and social media right now.

He also needs to avoid being seen as appropriating what has become a kind of North Star to climate activists. He needs to be seen charting his own path, not simply accepting what the left has offered. That’s why he calls his plan (or at least did at the debate) the “Biden Green Deal.”

He needs, and climate activists need, for there to be a symbol of ultimate progressive ambition that is too far for him to reach, something that he, as a moderate, can publicly opt against. Activists need room on the left from which to push him when he takes office. And he needs to be seen sanding off the edges and producing a more sensible version of the progressive agenda.

Biden could pull off a political hat trick on climate

Not many committed lefties wanted Joe Biden as their candidate, but looking back over the race so far, in light of the stability of the polls and Biden’s strength among key swing demographics (like older people), there does seem to be a weird match of the man to the moment. He might be just the guy to put a genial, moderate face on a bold left agenda.

A newly resurgent left is pushing ambitious policies on Biden, from Medicare-for-all to justice system reform to the Green New Deal. He has room to welcome their spirit but to adopt more reasonable versions of his own, and because he is widely seen as a moderate, a party man, it’s plausible to voters.

But the thing is, those “moderate” versions Biden is crafting amount to the most ambitious progressive policy agenda a Democratic presidential candidate has run on in the modern era, far more ambitious than anything Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton ever put forward (and far more ambitious than anything Congress is likely to pass). It’s true on health care, race, policing, and infrastructure — and it’s true on climate.

Biden’s climate plan is easily the most ambitious ever put forward by a presidential candidate. It would target 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, which is faster than even the most progressive states have pushed. It would invest $2 trillion and channel 40 percent of all federal green spending to vulnerable communities. It would retrofit millions of buildings, ramp up federal research, reorient US foreign policy around climate, beef up EPA enforcement, and on and on.

It’s not the GND, but it’s a really good deal.

To have any hope of doing any of it, Biden needs to get elected, and to do that, he needs to walk a fine line: avoid appearing too closely aligned with the activist left, to avoid spooking swing voters, but remain closely enough aligned to keep the left on his side. That, in a nutshell, is what he was trying to do at the debate, and what Trump was deliberately trying to prevent him from doing.

No one would ever accuse Biden of being rhetorically fleet of foot. And on the debate stage he was up against a torrent of obnoxious, badgering bullshit, which would be difficult for anyone. So his answers on the GND weren’t exactly clear, and they were easy for the right to demagogue.

But the story, such as it was, faded quickly and did not produce the hoped-for intramural fight on the left. As much as it loves intramural fights, even the left isn’t that foolish. Climate activists understand the stakes of this election all too well. It is the most important of their lives. They know that only a decisive Biden victory makes any kind of deal — new, green, Biden, or otherwise — possible.