vision 2020

Should Democrats Hold a Climate-Change Debate?

Jay Inslee lost his battle with the DNC. Photo: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock

Intelligencer staffers Benjamin Hart, Eric Levitz and David Wallace-Wells discuss the Democratic National Committee’s decision not to make climate change the singular subject of one of its candidate forums.

Ben: Washington governor Jay Inslee, the self-styled climate change candidate in the 2020 primaries, recently urged the Democratic National Committee to hold a debate focused solely on climate. The organization turned him down, and warned that if he participated in an unofficial event that focused on the issue, he would be banned from official debates in the future. Some are not happy about this development. For example, New York Times opinion writer Justin Gillis wrote today that “people are roasting alive in California towns hit by the deadliest wildfires in the state’s history. Midwestern cities are reeling from deluge upon deluge. Coastal communities are starting to drown from a relentlessly rising sea. None of that is enough, apparently, for the Democratic Party to choose to put this issue front-and-center in the primary campaign.” What do you make of the DNC’s decision?

David: There’s a lot of anger and frustration on the environmental left, with people frustrated that the party doesn’t “get it” on climate, which … they may not. But for me, a lot depends on what goes into the other debates. Is concentrating a discussion of climate on one night better than making it a big chunk of every debate? I don’t know. I’m pretty deep into the weeds on climate change, and I’m not sure what would happen over 90 minutes. Would they be debating the particular details of how to make the grid more efficient? Or about carbon pricing?

Eric: I have no idea what the DNC’s motives are here, or whether their objection is rooted in concerns about holding a climate-only event, or in ones about restricting discussion to any one issue for an entire debate. Though I could see some Democratic operatives noting that climate still does not (to my knowledge) rank as the top issue for most voters, and therefore arguing that giving climate such exclusive focus might make the party look out of touch.

And yeah, I also think it would probably be bad television. Inslee aside, most of these candidates are cribbing their climate policies from a similar pool of policy wonks. I’m not sure how eloquent Biden is at describing his own plan, let alone arguing whatever minutia distinguishes it from Beto O’Rourke’s. Candidates would inevitably start pivoting away from climate questions to hit the broader themes they want to advertise.

David: I agree. The plans are quite close to one another, and without a ton of detail, which means the distinctions to be drawn would be at the rhetorical level and about whether, say, a certain amount of decarbonization can be achieved with $3 trillion, or would require $5 trillion.

It would have the effect of making those candidates who hadn’t released plans come up with something, presumably.

Eric: The more I think about it, the less sense a climate-only debate makes from any angle besides a civic one. Signaling that we are facing an ecological catastrophe is very important, and would probably be good for the country. But the debate itself would probably be a mess.

David: That said, I do think it’s a bad look for the DNC to say, “And don’t do an event with anyone else on this … hugely, existentially important issue, or else we’ll boot you from the other debates.”

Eric: Yeah. I don’t understand what that’s about.

David: I can understand the calculus that the DNC doesn’t want to devote one of their sessions to climate — though at a substantive level, the subject obviously deserves that attention and more. But if Inslee wants to gather together some of the other candidates for a town hall on CNN, I mean, more power to him.

Ben: Another possible downside: I think we all agree that climate change is an existential crisis that, in the long run, dwarfs the importance of any other issue. But would dictating that only climate change gets its own forum, and not, say, health care, actually run the risk of alienating, or at the least annoying, people?

Eric: Yeah. I just think the bigger problem is that candidates simply wouldn’t respect the rule.

You have a few minutes of free national airtime — whatever the theme of the debate, or the particular question, the candidates are going to prioritize conveying their big selling points to the audience over engaging in a nuanced discussion of precisely how government procurement rules should be changed to incentivize renewable investment or what have you. I agree, though, it would force everyone to put together their own plan, which would be good.

David: I think there’s probably also a legitimate concern about such a debate providing ammunition for GOP attacks. Politically speaking, I think the best message here for Democrats is, “We care about you and your future, and they don’t.” But the deeper candidates get into the weeds about actual policy, the likelier they are to say something that backfires in the fall.

Eric: Yeah. I mean, they are all currently trying to pretend that establishing an “enforcement mechanism” to meet carbon-emission goals is not code for a carbon tax. Which would be difficult to sustain over 90 minutes.

David: That all said, maybe I’m naïve, but I think there might also be some political wisdom, not to mention principle, in saying, “Whatever, this really is this fucking important. We’re paying attention, so much we’re going to devote a whole night to it, no matter how boring you think that is.”

Ben: Isn’t the bigger issue here forcing the national media and candidates to focus on climate in the general election? Democrats are almost guaranteed to spend a lot of time on it in the primaries, but there wasn’t a single climate question in the 2016 debates.

David: I think that goal is much likelier to be achieved by how the Democratic nominee chooses to campaign.

Eric: I mean, I don’t think that’s going to happen again.

Ben: I don’t either.

Eric: Thanks to climate activists (of all stripes — from Sunrise to Bloomberg), along with ecological events, climate change feels more salient in mainstream discourse now than it was in 2016.

David: Don’t forget that U.N. report from last October.

Eric: Right, right. And I do think David is right — Democrats really only want enough climate questions in the general election to convey that they are serious about this issue that worries a majority of the public, while Republicans are not; not so many questions that the Democratic nominee has to level with the American people about the need for urbanization policy, or taxing carbon, or anything else controversial. (Which isn’t to say that’s what they *should* want, necessarily.)

David: In summary, on the substance, Inslee is very much right. On the politics …. ???

Should Democrats Hold a Climate-Change Debate?