Now that Elizabeth Warren has bounced back to third place in the Democratic primary, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is the 2020 candidate polling at the worst substance-to-popularity ratio. Inslee is at 0.6 percent in the RealClearPolitics average. In a recent New Hampshire poll, he was one of eight Democrats polling at zero.
That’s a shame. Inslee is the only candidate in the race who is treating climate change the way the science says climate change should be treated: not as one issue among many, but as the overriding emergency of our age.
As he told my colleague Dave Roberts, “I believe there is one central, defining, existential-with-a-capital-E threat to the future of the nation: climate change. It is clear that it will only be defeated if the United States shows leadership. And that will only happen if the US president makes it a clear priority — the number one, foremost, paramount goal of the next administration.”
Climate change isn’t a concern Inslee picked up just in time for the 2020 presidential race. In 2009, when he was a member of the House, he co-authored a book with energy expert Bracken Hendricks called Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy, and wrote ambitious legislation trying to make his vision reality.
Inslee is a two-term governor of Washington state and the Republican attack line on him has been that the only thing he cares about is climate change. It’s the kind of insult that’s also, sort of, a compliment.
Inslee supported the state’s recent carbon tax ballot initiatives (both failed) and has tried several times to pass carbon pricing bills through the legislature, only to be thwarted. But he kept at it, and this session (finally working with a Democratic majority in both houses), he shepherded through a range of ambitious bills on clean electricity, clean buildings, electric vehicles, banning hydrofluorocarbons, and boosting energy efficiency standards.
Inslee’s single-mindedness, even in the face of past failures, is important. A persistent problem in climate change politics is that Democrats pay lip service to the existential threat but prioritize kitchen table issues with faster political payoff. By the time they turn back to climate, if they turn back to climate, they’ve long since lost the capital necessary for the fight. Inslee made this point in an accurate assessment of Barack Obama’s first term:
The Democratic team said, “We’re going to do health care first.” And so climate didn’t get done. Now, could it have gotten done if it was put first? There are no guarantees in the historical retrospectoscope. But once health care went first, there wasn’t enough juice to get climate through.
We simply cannot have that experience again. So [climate change] can’t be on a laundry list. It can’t be something that candidates check the box on. It has to be a full-blooded effort to mobilize the United States in all capacities.
Inslee is trying to force a conversation Democrats need to have. If the party wins the White House and Congress in 2020, what comes first? Should it be Medicare-for-all, which has dominated the primary so far? Expanding the earned income tax credit, as Kamala Harris has promised? Or climate change, as Inslee insists?
Let me be clear: This isn’t an endorsement of Inslee for president. But it is an endorsement of taking his presidential campaign, and the questions it raises, seriously.
Inslee’s climate mission
The Democratic primary has been long on sweeping policy proposals and short on serious thinking about how any of that policy will get passed. Inslee’s candidacy is unusual in that it couples an ambitious policy vision with an honest account of the political reforms needed to have any chance of getting it passed.
Let’s start with the policy. Inslee has methodically been rolling out what is, by far, the most sweeping, serious, and detailed climate change plan in the race. He calls it the Climate Mission, and the target is bold: net-zero carbon emissions “as fast as possible, and by no later than 2045.”
The first piece is Inslee’s proposal for 100 percent clean energy by 2030. There’s no way I can do the plan as much justice as Roberts did, so I’ll link you to his explainer. “This is policy made by a team that’s been sweating over the details for years, bringing a level of sophistication and experience that is much needed,” Roberts writes.
The stakes of climate change are so enormous that it’s easy to become discouraged, alarmed, or incredulous. Inslee has a talent for making it all seem manageable. Roberts, who knows the ways climate conversations tend to go off the rails, puts it well:
Nothing can entirely prevent polarization in these most polarized of times, but one thing that can help dampen it is to take the discussion out of the clouds, out of the realm of competing symbols, and into the dirt and soil of policy work.
Approach a small city and tell it socialists are coming to steal its cows, you’ll get backlash. Tell it there’s a national push to decarbonize buildings underway, and that there will be an array of regulatory sticks and investment carrots ensuring that everyone moves along together, and that the city can prosper — economically and reputationally — by adopting stretch goals and outpacing other cities ... it’s just a different kind of conversation.
But remember: Inslee has been pursuing this agenda in his home state of Washington — a blue state, albeit one where Republicans controlled the Senate till 2017 — with only mixed success. Isn’t that a strike against him?
It would be, if it didn’t seem like he’d learned something from those struggles, something that would help him scale his vision nationally. But he has. Inslee’s experience has left him a realist on governing in a polarized, gridlocked era. As such, where a lot of Democrats running for president have hemmed and hawed over the filibuster, or continued to promise that they’ll get the bipartisan support that has eluded their predecessors, Inslee was first in flatly stating that the rule is anathema to progressive governance.
“The filibuster means being chained to the past, because it’s a protection of the status quo,” he said. “We cannot be chained to the past by a nondemocratic institution. The world is changing too fast.”
But he didn’t stop there. “I have the same view of the Electoral College,” he continued. He’s also endorsed statehood for DC and Puerto Rico, which is to say, senators from DC and Puerto Rico. Altogether, it adds up to a set of political reforms that, if passed, would make it far likelier that the majority of the country that supports action on climate change could actually do something about climate change.
Nothing about this vision is easy. Nothing about its success is guaranteed. But there will be no radical action on climate policy without radical action on the political system, and Inslee’s recognition of this fact, and the degree to which he’s integrated it into his argument, sets him apart from most of his competitors.
Democrats’ climate change test
This should be Inslee’s moment. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has pushed the Green New Deal to the forefront of the Democratic Party agenda. The most impressive youth activism in the party is around climate change. Inslee is the only 2020 candidate with a history, a message, and a platform that matches this rhetoric. So why isn’t he catching as much fire as Pete Buttigieg, or at least Beto O’Rourke?
I’ve sat down with Inslee before, and in working on this column, I’ve watched his speeches, read his interviews, listened to his podcasts (I recommend this one), and seen his town halls. He’s ... fine. The content is strong; the presentation can be plodding. Given the stakes, none of this should matter. But look at his polling. It does matter. Inslee doesn’t fill the room with electricity. It’s a problem for a presidential candidate in a crowded field.
Moreover, his record as governor isn’t going to set the base on fire on issues beyond climate change. He’s not been particularly courageous in challenging Washington’s exceptionally regressive tax structure, and his closeness with Amazon and Boeing put him on the wrong side of an increasingly populist party.
Still, Inslee has won more elections, in tougher circumstances, than most of the Democrats running for president. He’s a two-term governor, the chair of the Democratic Governors Association, and a former eight-term House member, giving him a combination of executive and legislative experience that few in the field can match. And under his watch, Washington got named the best state in which to do business and the best state in which to be an employee, which is an impressive coupling of credentials to carry into the arguments ahead.
And even if Inslee doesn’t win — and let’s be honest, he probably won’t — he has the potential to force an overdue reckoning between Democrats and their rhetoric on climate change. Is it really an all-encompassing, existential issue that will define the next generations of life on Earth? Or is it just one issue among many, and so long as a candidate proclaims support of the scientific consensus, that’s good enough?
Inslee is the only candidate who’s been fighting the climate fight for decades, and has a real theory for how to translate those experiences into a presidency oriented around this crisis. I’m not saying he should be polling in first place, but his message is too important to languish in last.
Correction: I originally wrote that Inslee was term-limited in 2020, but I had that wrong. Washington state doesn’t have term limits for the governorship.