Are Democrats Fumbling Away a Potent Clean Energy Offense?

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WASHINGTON—For a lesson in how to fumble away a chance to educate constituents about the potential value of solid climate change legislation look no farther than north central Ohio.

The home district of Democrat John Boccieri is just minutes west of the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, and the rookie representative has revealed hands of stone this summer as he clunks and clanks through an explanation of his June 2009 “yes” vote for the American Clean Energy and Security Act.

Conversely, some 400 miles south—in an enormous swath of Virginia that includes Charlottesville—another Democratic rookie legislator looks like gridiron great Lynn Swann, of Pittsburgh Steelers fame, on the same issue. Rep. Tom Perriello speaks with passion, grace, flair and confidence when explaining his vote for the global warming measure sponsored by fellow Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Ed Markey of Massachusetts.

On the stump and in an interview with the Washington Post, Boccieri’s support for the climate bill seems tepid at best. His audience drifts away when he makes lame attempts to delve into the complexities of cap and trade. Under the same circumstances, Perriello makes it clear that the legislation is about jobs, clean energy and energy independence for Virginia and the nation.

Boccieri, an Air Force reservist who flew C-130s over Iraq for more than a year, won Ohio’s 16th District with 55 percent of the vote in 2008. Perriello, who worked as a national security consultant in places such as Afghanistan and Liberia, squeaked to victory in Virginia’s 5th District by just 727 votes in 2008. Both face difficult re-elections.

Understandably, environmental organizations are dismayed that dozens of House Democrats seem to be following Boccieri’s timid defensive pattern. Instead of mimicking Perriello’s robust response, they seem to be backpedaling, repositioning themselves as moderates and blaming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sold them a bill of goods by vowing that the Senate would quickly embrace equally aggressive climate legislation.

So, what gives? Why aren’t some candidates owning the climate issue?

“Support for strong climate legislation is a political winner if politicians are willing to stand up and speak about it with conviction,” Jason Kowalski, policy coordinator for the advocacy organization 1Sky told SolveClimate News in an interview. “Although they have no tangible results to show for it because the Senate failed to act, they shouldn’t be afraid to defend their vote, especially since the opposition won’t hesitate to demonize them.”

Even 17-term Democratic incumbent Ike Skelton, D-Mo.—who won 66 percent of his district in 2008—is reluctant to frame the climate bill in terms of growth and prosperity for Missourians. Instead he dredges up the argument that a vote for Waxman-Markey was the only way to tame runaway Environmental Protection Agency bureaucrats from having free reign over costly regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.

While conventional inside-the-Beltway wisdom might tell House Democrats to back away from Pelosi and reinvent themselves as moderates, 1Sky shrugs that off.

“They shouldn’t be qualifying their votes,” Kowalski said. “Americans are overwhelmingly supportive of clean energy solutions. People aren’t going to take to the streets and volunteer for candidates who aren’t defending their voting record.”

“The messaging battle for the outcome of this election is starting now,” he continued, adding that Perriello is staying out of murky water by keeping unflinchingly on-point about clean energy jobs. “On the other hand, Boccieri is not standing up for what he voted for and wavering on his message. His opponents smell blood in the water and that’s one reason he’s being targeted.”

“Real” or “Fake” Opposition?

In this age of “Astroturfing,” it’s sometimes difficult to tell if a candidate is facing legitimate grass roots questions and concerns from constituents or being put on the spot by giant, wealthy and well-connected organizations that orchestrate outsider opposition—and often catch incumbents and newcomers flat-footed.

No doubt conservative groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Enterprise Institute, FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity are looking to put House Democrats on the spot—especially now that they are campaigning in their home districts during the August recess.

House Democrats are in a tough spot as both anti-incumbent and anti-party-in-power sentiments are wafting over primaries nationwide. But Greg Blair, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in an interview with SolveClimate News that the Democrats have brought the anti-establishment fervor on themselves by passing unpopular legislation. On his list is a climate bill that’s perceived as an energy tax, health care reform, a stimulus package, the bailout of banks and the auto industry, and financial reform.

Back in June 2009, Pelosi needed 216 votes for Waxman-Markey to pass. Eight Republicans and 211 Democrats voted yes while 168 Republicans and 44 Democrats voted no.

Those eight Republicans who voted yes won’t have to defend their cap-and-trade vote because they are such a tiny minority, Blair said.

“The climate bill is a symptom of a larger problem in the entire Democratic party,” Blair said. “It’s not a singular event, it’s a reflection of the Democrats’ entire unpopular legislative agenda. They’ve had their foot on the pedal for the last 18 months or so, and now they’re feeling the brushback from that.”

The presidential paradox, Kowalski said, is that those sorts of messages spun by Obama’s opponents have served to neuter the effect of his legislative successes.

“Usually, with those victories, your capital jolts upward and you are perceived as an effective leader,” he explained. But Obama’s opponents are flipping that paradigm by “effectively using procedural delay tactics to stall action in Congress and then turn around and paint the administration as unresponsive.”

That tactic of making the candidate of change look like a stagnant president draws attention away from all of the threatened filibusters in the Senate that are the actual impediments that prevent the upper chamber from advancing any serious debate on climate legislation.

In Climate Campaign, Language Matters

Politicians who treat the campaign trail as a wonkathon or a backpedaling exercise instead of a chance to connect with average people in their home districts are missing an opportunity, observers agree.

Instead of focusing on the intricacies of climate change policy, they need to emphasize how wind, solar, geothermal and other renewables translate to jobs and why the dirty fossil fuel energy economy needs to be cleaner and greener.

And their nouns and verbs can be simple, not highfalutin.

As Glenn Prickett, head of external affairs at The Nature Conservancy, so eloquently told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in late July: “We have to take climate change out of the atmosphere, bring it down to Earth and show how it matters in people’s everyday lives.”

Ike Skelton Consistent With Wary Message

While Skelton might sound like a waffler when expressing his skepticism of Waxman-Markey on the campaign trail, he’s actually following Prickett’s advice. The savvy representative, who chairs the powerful Armed Services Committee, has actually been relatively consistent with his lukewarm support.

Though his west-central Missouri district included much of the state capital of Jefferson City and the eastern Kansas City suburbs, it is predominantly rural and quite conservative.

“I first approached this legislation with a great deal of skepticism, but I have since been pleased that some—though not all—concerns of utilities, electric cooperatives, and farmers have been addressed in the version of the bill to be considered today,” Skelton said before the vote June 26.

“The measure before us is not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction,” Skelton continued, adding that the final bill would be more to his liking after the Senate refined it. “Truth be told, Congress has an obligation to enact energy reform legislation this year, especially given that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is working right now to create tough, costly regulations on greenhouse gases emitted from livestock, farms, factories, and utilities. Without congressional action, EPA will have free reign. That is unacceptable to me and ought to be unacceptable to every farmer and business owner in Missouri.”

Longtime St. Louis University political science professor Ken Warren said in an interview that Skelton is wise to engage in survival politics when rural Missourians are less-than-enamored with President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Warren, a former political strategist who is now an independent pollster, said Skelton’s seat is likely the state’s only toss-up race among the nine House contests.

Two well-financed Republicans—current state Sen. Bill Stouffer and former state Rep. Vicky Jo Hartzler—are vying to challenge Skelton Nov. 2. The winner will emerge once the votes are counted after the Aug. 3 primary. Skelton isn’t facing a Democratic opponent.

“On one level his comment about EPA bureaucrats is ridiculous and demagogical,” said Warren, an observer of Missouri and national politics for 35-plus years. “But I think what he’s saying is politically astute. All he’s concerned about is winning so he’s providing the best spin possible.”

In Skelton’s defense, Warren said, back in June 2009, House members fully expected the Senate to act on a bill that the two chambers would turn into law relatively rapidly.

“Skelton wants to try to make his vote seem more palatable to voters,” he said. “When he voted for cap and trade in 2009 it didn’t seem like such a big deal.”

In the end, the 78-year-old Skelton will wake up a winner Nov. 3, Warren predicted.

“It could be close but Skelton will probably win,” he said. “When push comes to shove, people come to the incumbent.”

See Also

Among House Democrats in the Rust Belt, a Sense of Abandonment over Energy Bill (Washington Post)

Senators of Tiny West Virginia Hold Big Influence Over Delay in National Climate Law

Battle Over California Climate Law Will Have National

Ripple Effect BP Oil Spill, Gridlock in Congress, Already Shaping November Elections in 4 States