Winning major policy debates often comes down to which side better defines or frames the issue. With the House's razor-thin passage of the climate change bill Friday night, the fight now becomes which side will succeed in winning public support for its take on the legislation. Will the public see it as a long overdue first step toward reversing dangerous changes in our climate, as President Obama and Democrats would like to frame it? Or is it a massive tax increase with grave implications for our fragile economy, the case made by most Republicans?
Democrats are hoping that the combination of Obama, the most persuasive debater on the political scene, and the current low credibility of the Republican Party will give them an advantage. But Republicans can point to polling data suggesting the public is receptive to their argument that Obama and congressional Democrats are overreaching instead of focusing on balancing the budget and controlling spending. They can argue that this bill is just another example of that trend.
There is a real fork-in-the-road aspect to this bill. Is it important and groundbreaking or is it dangerously ominous? It all comes down to salesmanship, and the implications are great.
The climate change fight now moves to the Senate, where Democrats need every vote they can get. They are nervously (and quietly) awaiting the latest health reports on two of their longest-standing members, Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. They also hope that Al Franken, who is now certain to be sworn in as the new senator from Minnesota, will be seated before his vote is desperately needed on the issue.
The side best able to sell its case on climate change will have the momentum on health care reform as well. The story line of "Democrats are on a roll" is significantly different than one of "Democrats stumbling badly on one of their top priorities." By the same token, "Republicans stopping the Obama agenda in its tracks" is a very different story line from "once again, Republicans are unable to stop Obama and Democrats."
In watching the debate, the number of defections from each side was somewhat surprising. A loss of 44 votes in the House for Democrats, whose margin is 40 seats, would seem to be a dealbreaker for an issue as contentious as this. But to have eight Republicans voting in favor of final passage was a few more than expected as well, and made up the difference. Given Florida Democrat Alcee Hastings' astonishing decision to leave to observe the Albanian elections, a few more Republicans opposing the measure might have made the difference.