• Ryan O'Connell

Democratic Candidates Have A Plan for Saving the Planet…but What About Winning the Election?

September 10, 2019

The CNN Town Hall on the Climate Crisis last week had clear winners and losers. The program also provided a preview of how candidates may fare in the third Democratic debate on Thursday, September 12.

In a bravura performance, Elizabeth Warren showed why her campaign has such momentum, while Kamala Harris floundered. Joe Biden’s weak appearance on the podium highlighted, once again, the problems with his candidacy. By contrast, Bernie Sanders was concise and energetic. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar were impressive and knowledgeable…but will that help their campaigns to take off?

Sanders’ $16 Trillion Plan to Save the Planet

The Democratic candidates generally agree on the key measures for dealing with the climate crisis, so we’re dealing with differences in degree and style.

They all support the Green New Deal, and most of them have called for a tax on carbon emissions, which was a non-starter politically a few years ago. Bernie Sanders is the only exception among the major candidates on that point. The candidates are all prepared to spend a great deal of money trying to avoid a catastrophe for the planet and our way of life.

They disagreed about whether or not to ban fracking, which is a complicated political issue. The technique has created an economic boom in key states such as Pennsylvania. Thanks to fracking, the U.S. has become the leading energy producer in the world, and we’ve reduced our dependence on foreign oil.

However, the technique has also created significant environmental problems (earthquakes, polluted water) in some areas. Harris, Sanders and Warren would prohibit fracking, while Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar would limit it.

Their price tags for solving the crisis vary, too. Bernie Sanders has shown that he can think big, at least, by proposing to spend $16 trillion over 15 years. That’s about $1.1 trillion a year.

To put that amount in context, the entire U.S. economy amounts to about $20 trillion, and the federal government’s revenues are estimated at $3.6 trillion for this fiscal year. So Sanders’ plan would require a 30% increase in federal revenues (i.e., taxes) to avoid increasing the deficit.

Warren’s plan would cost $3 trillion of spending, and Biden’s $1.7 billion.

Elizabeth Warren Was Compelling But Harsh

Elizabeth Warren lit up the stage at the Town Hall. From the get-go, the senator quickly and easily engaged with individuals in the audience. She often asked them questions, rather than waiting for the moderator to do so. Warren was quick on her feet and forceful. Along with Bernie Sanders, she received the most applause from the audience. Warren very cleverly wore a green jacket, a subtle reference to the topic of the day.

Senator Elizabeth Warren

But Warren also showed the negative side of her campaign, painting a grim picture of U.S. politics and society. In one remarkable exchange with a moderator, the senator used the words “corruption” or “corrupt” about 20 times, as she blamed energy companies and their lobbyists for the climate crisis. At times, Warren has seemed like a mirror image of Trump, who rails about “draining the swamp” and also disparages our system of government.

Warren’s assault on “corruption” in Washington is overblown and corrosive, like the President’s. This Administration has taken such unprecedented measures to favor energy producers and to roll back environmental regulations that charges of corruption may be fair, but this is an aberration in recent U.S. history. After all, Richard Nixon created the EPA, and subsequent administrations—particularly Obama’s—tightened environmental regulations. The lobbyists don’t always win.

Energy companies and auto manufacturers have fought government regulations in the past, to be sure, but many of them have resisted the Trump Administration’s initiatives. Car companies have allied with the state of California to preserve most of the Obama auto pollution standards. Large energy firms such as Exxon have criticized Trump’s move to repeal regulation of methane emissions. They are investing in developing alternative energy sources.

Joe Biden Was The Biggest Loser of the Night…

In sharp contrast to Warren (and Sanders), former Vice President Joe Biden was banal and boring. He looked old and tired; it did not help that he had a broken blood vessel in his left eye, which may have reflected the strain of campaigning.

Three women spoke before Biden: Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren. All three stood on their feet during their 45-minute segments, and Warren strode around the stage. Biden sat in a chair most of the time. The visual was awful and reinforced the impression that Biden was low on energy.

The issue of climate change should have been a lay-up for Biden. The former VP should have emphasized that the Obama Administration played a leadership role in creating the Paris climate change agreement and also drastically increased auto mileage standards. Instead, he said, with some indignation to a question about his role, “In 1986, I introduced a bill on climate issues that was called a game changer!”

This singular response triggers some questions: what have you done for the last 33 years, Joe? And if your bill was a game changer, why does it look like we are losing the game now?

Biden’s staffers must be hoping and praying that he will deliver a more forceful performance in the debate on Thursday night.

…And He Made Bernie Sanders Look Good

Bernie Sanders followed Biden, and the contrast between the two septuagenarians was stark. Sanders also started off sitting on a chair. However, he soon stood up and flapped his arms vigorously as he made his points. Unlike Biden, the Senator from Vermont spoke clearly and concisely, and he was clearly connecting with the audience in the studio. Sanders received as much applause as Warren did. To be fair, the audience contained many environmental activists, who would tend to favor those two candidates.

Kamala Harris Floundered

Senator Kamala Harris can be electrifying in person, but she was not compelling during the Town Hall. She had some fine moments, showing empathy and warmth in answering a question about wildfires in California.

However, Harris often delivered meandering, vague answers, and she did not demonstrate the grasp of the subject that Warren, Klobuchar and Buttigieg did. At times, the senator had a deer-in-the-headlights look as an audience member came up with an oddball question.

Harris also seemed somewhat backward looking. She focused on bolstering her credentials, boasting that she had sued Exxon (and laughing about that, incongruously) rather than laying out her agenda for future action. That was surprising, since the senator has rolled out a comprehensive plan. Her performance raised questions about how quick she will be on her feet at the debate on Thursday night.

Buttigieg and Klobuchar Were Impressive

Two other moderate candidates, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, showed their policy chops and also their sense of humor. Buttigieg managed to be emphatic about the dangers of climate change and upbeat at the same time. He zipped off several one-liners, clearly impromptu, and he garnered the most laughs from the audience.

Unlike the other candidates, Buttigieg also wove a religious theme into his remarks. Mayor Pete referred to his faith and added, “When we are injecting poison into God’s creation, that’s a kind of sin”.

That was not play-acting; Buttigieg is a devout Episcopalian. His words may not have resonated much with a New York audience, which is probably quite secular. But Buttigieg’s easy reference to his religious values may appeal to large swaths of the country. This candidate is filling an unfortunate void in the Democratic Party, which seems to view any expressions of religious belief as suspect.

Like Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar was knowledgeable and eloquent about the need to arrest climate change. She emphasized that she has spent 10 years on the Senate Agricultural Committee, and it shows. Klobuchar has a deep grasp of the issues and a practical approach to addressing them. She also cracked a corny but light-hearted joke about “building a fridge to the 21st Century”.

Klobuchar has not generated much excitement on the campaign trail, perhaps because she is so moderate and cautious in her approach to issues. But she understands the Midwest and rural America, and she would probably be an excellent choice as a VP candidate.

The Democrats are on the side of the angels, as far as climate change goes. If any of these candidates wins in 2020, we can expect the U.S. government to become a positive force for change. If they don’t, we’ll move ever closer to Armageddon.

But look on the bright side: if Trump is re-elected, at least you will get to pick the light bulb of your choice and breathe all the methane you want.

The Wall Street Democrat

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