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Jay Inslee’s CNN town hall showed he wants to lead on climate. Voters have other priorities too.

The Washington governor focused on global warming, but also fielded questions on health care, gun control, and Boeing.

Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee testifies in front of a US House committee.
Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee testifies in front of a US House committee.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Jay Inslee is running for president, he says, to do something about climate change, and his campaign has focused on the issue. His CNN town hall in Washington, DC, on Wednesday night showed that voters seem to like the focus — but also have other priorities they’d like addressed.

Inslee, the second-term governor of Washington, began the town hall by saying that global warming would be his top priority as president. “I will make this pledge right now: If I am elected to this high honor, I will make defeating climate change the number one priority of the United States,” Inslee said. “And I believe I can accomplish that.”

In a key moment, Inslee laid out his campaign’s intention: “There was only four minutes of climate change in the last three presidential debates. I’m going to end that.”

But over the hour-long event, Inslee spent a bulk of his time answering questions about other issues: health care, criminal justice reform, and the growing Boeing 737 Max scandal. It’s at these times when Inslee sounded less like the candidate he’s selling himself as — a laser-focused climate hawk — and more like a typical governor touting his record on a whole host of issues while running a fairly standard presidential campaign.

In all, roughly a third of the town hall went to climate change. That’s a pretty significant portion for a presidential candidate’s town hall, which tend to run through as many issues as possible.

But the town hall touched on several other topics as well. After all, the polls show that, while Democrats do care about global warming, they also care about a lot of other issues.

It’s this tension that Inslee will have to navigate as he runs what he’s framing as mostly a single-issue campaign — an issue that, in his view, should be all-consuming for the country.

Inslee really wants to focus on global warming

One of the most telling moments in the town hall came when Inslee, after getting permission from host Wolf Blitzer, went into an aside about “why I’m running for president.”

Inslee explained that he’s “loved being governor of the state of Washington,” that he’s “been a very successful governor,” and that Washington state could be “a template for how we can build an economy in the US.” But then he emphasized that global warming is an issue that has to take priority:

This is such a threat to my grandchildren. I’ve got three grandkids. And I know they’re going to live a very degraded life, and will not enjoy what I have enjoyed in the state of Washington — which is salmon in the rivers, and clean air to breathe, and snow in the mountains, and being free from infectious diseases. And I know with moral certainty that they will live a degraded life. So I’ve decided to run for president to make sure this is the number one priority of the United States and to make sure that the Democratic Party has this in its sights when we nominate a person to run for this esteemed office. And I’ve committed myself, body and soul, to that effort.

He then called on people to donate to his campaign, so that he can meet one of the requirements to appear on the Democratic debate stage in June.

The Democratic primary has already been all over the place with ideas, from Medicare-for-all to higher taxes on the wealthy to baby bonds. But Inslee’s focus takes a pragmatic view of the presidency — one that considers priorities. As Inslee told Vox reporter Jane Coaston, “To govern is to choose.” Under this view, whoever is the next president will have to prioritize certain issues. So a candidate can run on expanding access to health care, taxing the rich, strengthening gun laws, and so on — but at some point, the person in the White House and Congress will have to pick the issue that they’ll act on first, just like former President Barack Obama and a Democratic-controlled Congress in 2009 prioritized health care reform.

And for Inslee, that priority is doing something about climate change.

Inslee, however, also seemed to connect other issues — that at first blush may not seem related to global warming — to the topic. Asked about national security, he said that “the Pentagon’s hair is on fire about the mass migrations that are going to happen because of climate change creating political instability.” Talking about the filibuster, he noted that the only way any legislation is likely to happen, including on climate change, is if the Senate can pass bills with a simple majority vote instead of the 60 out of 100 votes required to overcome a filibuster today.

Tying other priorities to climate change is a common theme for Inslee. In his podcast with Coaston, he argued that climate change can be an avenue for economic revitalization — since it can lead to a bunch of new jobs in renewable energy. In an interview with Vox reporter David Roberts, he mentioned that “improving voting rights” is key to building momentum for action on global warming too.

In doing this, Inslee is not just making a case that global warming is all-encompassing — as he put it to Roberts, “one central, defining, existential-with-a-capital-E threat to the future of the nation” — but also that tackling climate change will require addressing other problems, like the filibuster and voting rights, and help address some other problems on its own, such as national security and the economy.

Voters may have different ideas

That’s Inslee’s priority. The town hall showed voters have theirs.

Before the town hall, Inslee’s vision seemed to be struggling. It’s still very early in the primaries, but in the RealClearPolitics average of the polls, Inslee doesn’t come out in the top 10 among the candidates. He has less than 1 percent support — lagging very far behind big names like Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, but also behind lesser-known candidates like Kirsten Gillibrand and Julián Castro.

The town hall perhaps showed why. Although Inslee started the town hall and ended it by mostly focusing on global warming and steering conversation back to his preferred topic, most of the attendees’ questions were not about global warming. One of the questioners lamented, “Unfortunately, there’s not been much information about your stances on several issues” — besides global warming and the environment.

So for about two-thirds of the event, Inslee answered questions about other issues — many of which are deeply important to voters, and are likely to come up for the next president, whether it’s a Democrat or Trump.

This reflects a real problem for Inslee’s campaign to the White House: A lot of voters don’t seem to see global warming in the same way that he does.

In a Pew Research Center survey earlier this year, climate change came second to last in a list of 18 topics — losing out to the economy, health care costs, education, terrorism, and more. Among just Democrats, climate change fell behind health care costs, education, the environment, Medicare, and poverty.

One poll did find that among Democrats in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, and California, taking action on climate change is the top issue along with achieving universal health care.

The problem may come when Inslee tries to force voters to decide between climate change and health care or a host of other issues. As he has written, electing a candidate focused on global warming may mean “deferring other worthy goals.”

“If this is not job one — of defeating climate change — it will not get done,” Inslee said at the town hall. “You know you have a to-do list on your refrigerator? We just can’t have our nominee just have it on the to-do list. It’s got to be on the top, otherwise we will not succeed in doing this.”

Democratic voters, amped up about other issues along with global warming, may not be ready to be single-issue voters on climate. And as the CNN town hall showed, that might make it hard for Inslee to stick to his singular focus on climate change, as worthy as a cause as it may be.

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