vision 2020

A Long Talk With Jay Inslee

The 2020 candidate on nuclear power, constituent Howard Schultz, and the prospect of debating Trump.

Photo: Ted S Warren/AP/REX/Shutterstock
Photo: Ted S Warren/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Voters, says Washington governor Jay Inslee, the only climate-first candidate in the 2020 presidential race, “are thirsting for information about the candidates.” It’s early on a Thursday, and Inslee has already appeared on both TV and radio this morning in New York, after headlining a CNN town hall late the night before in Washington. Now he’s leaning over a croissant and black coffee in the back of a Swedish café on Tenth Avenue, contemplating the task of introducing himself to the nation from his place near the back of the Democratic polling pack. “And I’m just one of them, obviously,” he says. The one sitting governor currently in the overflowing contest, Inslee — who also served in Congress — is headed to Iowa after we speak to inspect damage from recent flooding. There, he’ll rip Mike Pence’s professed ignorance on the causes of climate change, before participating in yet another media town hall, this one organized by NowThis News. And the fact that so many voters have open minds and are eager to listen to all this, he says, “means we can right the ship. It means we can still rescue the country. So that hope is still there. That’s been, really, a pleasant surprise.”

Did you see the recent report that Trump plans to run in 2020 on his environmental record?
Whenever you read something associated with Trump, you have to ask whether it’s out of the Onion or not. And so when you see things like this — “wind turbines cause cancer,” “Trump runs on his environmental record,” you have to think, Is this just out of the Onion?

Point taken. What do you make of the prospect of him actually doing it, though?
My belief is there is no whopper too obvious and large for him not to tell, there’s no expectation of truthfulness — ever — from him. Therefore there’s no norm of honesty that he would not violate in a heartbeat, for whatever reason, and a guy who’ll tell you his father was born in Germany — when we know he was born in Kenya, by the way — will tell you anything. So no, nothing would shock us, but would that be successful? No. It won’t be successful, because — and Republicans know this too, the Republicans now are moving on climate change issues, the national number now is 75 percent, it’s gone up 10 percent in the last year, year and a half, because of increasing disasters, more people are recognizing this with visual evidence, personal evidence, it’s no longer a graph on a chart — the things he is doing are so palpably violative of any sense of health. He’s trying to strip our state’s ability to protect our clean water, he’s trying to take away a state’s ability to protect its own citizens. That doesn’t even wash with quite a number of Republicans in my state. I’m trying to think of an important protection of clean air or water that he has not threatened, from coal plants to CAFE, to now this latest assault on the clean water standards. So nothing would shock me, but I don’t think it would succeed.

You talk a lot about teaching D.C. about the way things work in “the other Washington,” but on the environmental front specifically, efforts to pass a carbon fee or tax have fallen short repeatedly. What lessons have you drawn from this experience when you face up to national policy?
Number one, when you’re up against the most well-funded industry in world history, which is the fossil fuel industry, and they’re willing to spend $32 million to obfuscate and create misimpressions, that makes it tough. And they’re willing to spend untold numbers of dollars. And that is frustrating because those dollars come from the taxpayers, because there’s $27 billion of subsidies they get, they turn around and tell deceptions to the public. That’s very frustrating. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been so forceful in saying we need to end those $27 billion in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. So I’ve learned that is something you’ve got to work to overcome.

Number two, I’ve learned the most powerful renewable fuel is perseverance — that’s the most important renewable energy source — and that it can succeed. You know, we’ve had successes in Washington, untrammeled and unstopped by temporary setbacks. So we have built a $6 billion wind-turbine industry because we narrowly passed a renewable portfolio standard. We have rapidly electrified our transportation system, we’re on track to meet our goal of 50,000 electric cars next year, and that will probably be second in the country, I think, as far as per capita electric cars. We’ve had success with our clean energy research and development fund, which has spun off some companies. We’ve had success with our charging infrastructure. We are, I think, likely to pass a 100 percent requirement for clean electrical grid this year in our legislature. I think we are likely to pass a ban on superfluids, hydrofluorocarbons. It looks good that we’ll move forward with a better building code to reduce waste and energy. So we’re having successes, and what I’ve also learned is the good news is there’s not just one avenue here, one tool. There’s multiple tools in the toolbox and you gotta use them all.

One of the reasons this is a high-profile national discussion right now, of course, is the Green New Deal, which you’ve praised and called aspirational. But from a tactical perspective, do you worry it’s too aspirational, that the opposition has found it easy to call it pie in the sky?
The first thing is, about 85 percent of what Republicans say about the Green New Deal just isn’t so. I mean, what they ascribe to it just is not in the proposal. This reminds me of the “death panels” situation. That was the argument! “Democrats are going to try to kill you with death panels!” It’s the same thing. I hear these wild assertions about what’s in there. It just isn’t in there. But even if it is of a timeline that’s more optimistic than you might think is within the realm of the possible, what I liken this to is when Kennedy said, “We’re going to the moon and back in ten years.” I don’t recall people saying, “Oh, no, no, it will take 11-and-a-half, so let’s not go, and Kennedy, you haven’t designed the retro-rockets yet, or the heat shield, therefore this is a fantasy.” Look, this was a statement to say we should push the Go button to decarbonize our economy, and that was an important thing to say. And it’s been successful, because (a) people are talking about climate change, (b) it has raised aspirational levels. You can’t do this with a nip and tuck, building a fossil-free economy over the next several decades is a Herculean proposition. Third, it has helped bring in frontline communities, marginalized communities, communities of color. It brought them to the table to understand why, as you’re doing a just transition, it can help you reduce income inequality because you’re building jobs, you’re paying attention to these communities. And that’s really helpful too. Now, that being said, there’s a hundred policies we’ll have to build. That’s the real policy superstructure of this.

Inslee at the Climate Strike at Columbia University. Photo: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock

I’m interested in the Kennedy comparison. You make the same one in your book, but that came out 12 years ago. So you think about it with the same framework? Has the task not become more urgent?
It still harkens to what I believe now: This is as much an issue of character as it is science. This is a character issue, in what you believe about the American people. I believe we’re optimists, not pessimists like Donald Trump. I believe we’re a can-do people, not a can’t-do people. He believes we’re not smart enough to do wind turbines, okay? Well, Americans have figured out — Republicans and Democrats both — how to build a wind turbine. He’s so pessimistic. I believe we can do big things, he doesn’t believe we can do big things. So this is a character issue, and the character is the same issue when Kennedy said, “Let’s go to the moon,” and when we beat fascism, too. Beating fascism might be a better comparison on scale for this issue than the Apollo Project, as to what is necessary. I heard a really great comment, a young man named Jack from Missouri, he sort of crashed a Fox News stakeout at a diner the other day. Somebody said, “Isn’t it too expensive to do this?” And he said, “Well, was World War Two too expensive?” No, it had to be done, A. B, it created so many jobs and whole new industries that it actually built the economy, got us out of the Depression. So no, I think it is still resonant, and we shouldn’t be dissuaded. Twelve years feels like a long, long time, but the suffragettes were at it for decades. But this is our last chance. This is it. We’ve kicked this can down the road for 30 years, and this is it. There’s no more chances. When it’s your last chance, you gotta take it.

One of your constituents, Bill Gates, has been making his own significant push on nuclear energy recently. Do you support the way he’s talking about it?
So I think, given the urgency and the scale of the challenge, we have to keep all low- and zero-carbon technologies on the table. I support research projects to find out whether we can develop a system that will meet the needs: One, be more cost-effective; two, be safer to deal with, with passive safety systems; three, deal with the waste issue — either eliminate it or find some disposal system that’s meaningful; and four, win public acceptance. So I support research to find out if those can be achieved. I know Bill is making some very significant investments, one of which was scotched by the Trump administration, by the way — trying to deploy a new type of safer fission system — which is really, unfortunately, one of the sequelae of Trump’s trade wars. So I support the research. But! Those issues would have to be surmounted to make it something that could grow in the country.

Okay, last question about one of your constituents. Are you surprised Howard Schultz is moving forward with his independent presidential exploration in a serious way?
No, I’m not surprised. I think it’s very disappointing that someone who says he has Democratic values wants to do the most dangerous thing possible — to make the reelection of Donald Trump even a possibility. So that’s hugely disappointing that someone would do that. Everybody that can string two words together knows the only consequence of his candidacy would be opening the window of possibility to Trump’s reelection. It’s just, there’s no evidence whatsoever to support that as a rational decision, except wanting to lead to the more probable reelection of Donald Trump.

Presumably you’ve had some sort of relationship with him in the past, as a business leader in the state?
Minimal. He has never really engaged in public policy in my state. AWOL — almost totally — from almost anything having to do with democracy or policy in our state. Doesn’t even vote over half the time. Didn’t vote in the last — we had a school election, to help fund schools! Here’s a guy who wants to be president of the United States who didn’t even deign to vote, what, five weeks ago? Yeah! We had a school bond issue — we’re trying to build schools — here’s a guy who says he wants to be in education, he’s going to reform America and bring a new politics, and the son of a gun doesn’t even vote. What type of embarrassing thing is that? You want to be president and you don’t even vote? You know, that’s just for the little people. In Howard’s life, voting is just for the little people. I don’t think his candidacy is going to soar.

How come the Democratic Party has never nominated a Westerner before?
I’ve never run before! Interesting question. It may be one of those historical oddities. I’m not sure there’s a systemic reason for it. I mean, the media folks are certainly a lot more concentrated in New York than they are in Seattle or San Francisco. That could be one bearing on it. But I wouldn’t necessarily pick any others.

The last Washingtonian to mount a serious run for the presidency was Scoop Jackson, in 1972 and 1976. Have you studied or considered lessons from his experience?
Yes. It’s much better to have voted against the Iraq War than to have been fully supportive of the Vietnam War in a Democratic primary. There was an article in my local newspaper comparing our candidacies, they sort of missed this basic distinction: Basically, the senator had this thing that, sort of by necessity, prevented his nomination. And I took a position on something that was necessary to the nomination. So pretty different lessons. He was a very admired figure, he did some really good work on environmental issues. Huge supporter of public lands and parks. Big supporter of some of our environmental laws. So he was a very respected figure in our state for a lot of reasons. But his position on the war made it extremely difficult for him to win a Democratic nomination.

Speaking of positions with electoral consequences, your vote for the assault-weapons ban was widely seen as reason for losing your House seat in 1994. What lessons from that time do you still think about today?
Actually quite a few lessons. Number one, if you follow something with deep conviction, and as a result of that you actually achieve a good public policy which has the potential to save peoples’ lives, and you lose something you’ve worked really, really hard to gain and you enjoyed, and even though that loss is extremely painful, you will not regret it for any reason. And I have not regretted that for an instant on the assault-weapon ban. Because I felt then, and I feel now, that it is a very rare thing in anyone’s life to be able to take an action that can have a major change in your national policy. And that was a moment where I was able to do that. That is a rare gift, to be one of the deciding votes on a policy like that. And so I felt then and I feel now that having had that gift, and exercised it, I’ve never regretted that vote, even though it was extremely painful. Look, I loved being in Congress, and I’d moved my family 2,500 miles. It was a wrenching experience. And now, I like to think there’s happy endings: I’ve now been governor for three major answers for gun-safety legislation. The NRA is in retreat in our state because I’m standing up against them, as well as thousands, millions, of other Washingtonians. So we’re now moving the needle on bump stocks and extreme risk protection orders, and now, most recently, to have a law requiring gun owner responsibility, so we can prevent even accidental suicides, too.

When you confronted the president on gun issues in the White House last year, did you know you were going to do it when you walked in?
No, because I didn’t know school violence was going to be the major topic of discussion, and the previous year he had refused to recognize Democrats, except for one, who did not confront him, and I was disappointed by that. So I just said, not this year. I’m going to be recognized. So I just stood up, and that’s how I was able to confront him. He needs to be confronted, and he has not been. I’m not sure I can think of a single other place where anyone’s confronted him personally. I did it with the appropriate level of dignity for the place I was, with a forceful takedown of his kind of ridiculous policy, and also the personal — I would consider — mild rebuke.

When you say “he needs to be confronted” it sounds like you’ve thought about what your approach would be, maybe on the debate stage?
Yes, I’ve actually even practiced this. Because on Trevor Noah’s show, after we taped it, we did a mock debate with a live studio audience, and he was Donald Trump, wearing one of the scariest wigs I’ve ever seen in my life. And we actually had a debate. And they didn’t air it, because they didn’t think it worked for one reason or another. I felt very good about that debate! I had the audience with me, and I thought, “Yes! I’m winning this.” I really had him.

So what’s the approach? I mean, there really are a few different theories for the best way to confront him. Does it look like when you stood up in the White House?
Possibly. I will tell you, this is a subjective feeling more than objective evidence, but you do get a feel for people. I liken it to playing basketball. I always say, sometimes you can get a measure of the guy you’re playing against, and sometimes you feel, “I kind of own this guy, this is a guy I could take.” Partly because I think I’m a very good contrast, because I’m an optimist, he’s a pessimist. I’m confident, he’s a very insecure individual. I’m willing to stand up to bullies, and he doesn’t deal with that very well. And so I feel confident about that interchange on the debate stage. I think I’d match up physically well with him. And people say, you know, “What is he going to call you?” And I say, “He’s going to call me Mr. President.”

While we’re talking about Trump, I want to go back to your House career for a second. When you got back to the House, it was right as the impeachment of President Clinton was happening. Does that experience inform your approach to the current moment? I know you’ve said you’re not fully for impeaching Trump right now, that you think people should focus on beating him in 2020, but does it color your thinking?
Well, um, not a huge amount. I mean, we should do what’s right. Bottom line, it is clear that a major part of my success out there was because I did run against impeachment, which was very rare, by the way. There were only two candidates in the whole country who ran against impeachment of Bill Clinton. It was Rush Holt and myself. But I would not use that as a reason either to start articles of impeachment or not start articles of impeachment. I relish the prospect of him being a blip in history by the most massive electoral crushing in American history. I really relish the thought of that.

I think that we should continue this investigation. I think we should get the tax returns. I’ve been consistent on this. And then I’m also suggesting all Democratic candidates ought to release their tax returns, too, if we’re going to insist that he do it. We need the rest of my competitors to release theirs as well, and they ought to do that by Tax Day, at least. We gotta make sure that we’re hewing to the same rules we demand of Trump. Anyway, we need to continue the investigation, we need to look at the tax returns. And decisions could be made at a later date. That’s how I think of it.

I know what your answer has been when people have asked you about the super-PAC supporting your candidacy, but are you surprised that this is still an issue, or that you’re the only candidate with one right now?
Well I don’t have one, this is an independent thing. And I don’t actually know that that’s true, either. I think there’s a couple of senators with their own.

That’s right, but the one supporting you seems like the only active one right now.
Look, whoever the Democratic nominee is going to be, there is going to be an independent expenditure favoring their campaign. And any candidate who’s honest with you or the public will say that. So there’s a mild degree of hypocrisy here about this subject, because it’s the only way to compete. So I can just report to you that the public does not seem to be entirely interested in this subject. Because I have said that I’m not going to criticize any group that’s trying to fight against climate change, I’m just not going to do that.

One thing a few candidates have said to me is they’re surprised — impressed, really — with the level of specificity that voters are eager to get into on the campaign trail. I assume you saw that Senator Sanders just rolled out a new version of his Medicare for All bill. How often do you find yourself confronted with things like the specifics of universal health-care policy that you didn’t necessarily anticipate?
It happened last night. Somebody asked me about our plan to solve the recycling problem with China. And, you know, I did say I don’t have a plan for that yet. We’re looking into it. So far I haven’t felt stumped. I’ve got one of the broader books of experience of anybody in the race — from state government as a legislator to Congress for two separate congressional districts, one that was a red district, one that is a swing district. Now, as governor, there’s no one else that has that broad experience. I think that’s equipped me well. So other than the recycling question, no.

So what did you make of Sanders’s new Medicare for All proposal?
I haven’t seen exactly what he’s saying.

It’s similar to what he’s said in the past.
I would say that what we’re doing in Washington is a good template for success. We’re on the cusp of being the first state to have a public option, and I hope senators roll out a lot of plans. We’re actually getting things done in my state. We had one of the most successful Obamacare rollouts. We’ve been successful in restraining costs, and now I think a massive expansion of Medicare is warranted for people who want it. Reducing the age and letting people buy into Medicare, I think, is a great step forward, and I’m fully in support of that.

Last one. Do you watch Game of Thrones?
I don’t. Do you?

Yeah. Okay, it was worth a shot. I wanted to ask if you subscribe to the theory that Winter is a climate metaphor.
Oh my gosh. Well, running for president has kept me away from Game of Thrones. But somebody recently asked me about my favorite movie. It was The Wizard of Oz! There are some metaphors there. You need courage, you need scientific literacy, and you need a heart to care about people, right? So you gotta have all three of those. You gotta have the lion, the tin man, and the scarecrow to make this fly.

This article has been edited and condensed from an extended conversation.

A Long Talk With 2020 Hopeful Jay Inslee