Democrats Pay a Price for Being Green

If the party was serious about winning back the Rust Belt, it would strike a smarter balance between the environment and the economy.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Dec. 6, 2016, 8 p.m.

In the aftermath of the presidential election, Democrats have been blaming their defeat on everything but the obvious. The Clinton campaign has dismissed suggestions of a voter mandate, pointing to its popular vote victory and narrow margins of defeat in three Midwestern states. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi blamed lackluster communication for the party’s dismal showings in recent elections. Democratic National Committee members from the Midwest blamed their problems on an organizational deficit, according to my National Journal colleague Karyn Bruggeman, even though Clinton’s ground game was considered her campaign’s biggest strength in the run-up to the election.

But the most glaring problem for the Democratic Party is an unwillingness to even entertain the possibility that its policy agenda had anything to do with its stunning defeat. Even Republicans, thanks to their national committee’s “autopsy report” in the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s loss, concluded that the party had to take a more moderate stance on immigration to win future elections. Democrats have done no similar soul-searching.

Let me offer a piece of unsolicited advice, one that Democratic strategists have discussed privately but are reticent to promote publicly for fear of alienating green activists. Taking a more moderate stand on energy policy—whether it’s supporting the Keystone XL pipeline, championing the fracking boom that’s transforming regional economies, or simply sounding a more skeptical note on the Obama administration’s litany of environmental regulations—would do wonders for the Democratic Party’s ability to compete for the working-class voters who have drifted away from the party.

If the GOP gains in the Midwest were an anomaly, perhaps Democrats could afford to cater to their environmental base. But this wasn’t the first time that Democrats lost significant ground in the region. In 2010, they lost a whopping 63 seats in the House in part because of failed cap-and-trade legislation; over one-third of the seats they lost were in the Midwest. Republicans amped up their attacks on Obama’s environmental policies during the 2014 midterms—airing more than 26,000 spots citing the Environmental Protection Agency—and swept nearly every competitive Senate race on their way to the majority.

Take the Keystone XL pipeline as a stand-in for voter sentiment on the balance between protecting the environment and producing jobs. A March 2014 Pew Research Center poll, conducted during the Keystone debate, found that a 49 percent plurality of Democrats supported building the pipeline—even though the president and top party leaders opposed it. Among working-class Democrats (those who made less than $50,000 a year), support for the Keystone project outdistanced opposition by a whopping 22 points (54 to 32). When your party’s own voters are at odds with its elite, it’s a recipe for disaster. Donald Trump’s Midwestern sweep was the culmination of these long-standing trends.

The party’s exposure is even greater in 2018. There are seven Democratic senators up for reelection in the Rust Belt, with an eighth (Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota) representing an energy-rich Plains state. Trump carried seven of the eight states, and came within one point of winning deep-blue Minnesota. If Democrats continue to raise holy hell on climate change but sound uninterested in promoting energy jobs, Trump will have a ready-made issue to exploit over the next two years.

“Hillary Clinton lost Pennsylvania not because she didn’t hit her margins in the suburban [Philadelphia] collar counties,” said a senior Democratic operative. “She lost because of a surge in white votes for Trump in the western part of the state. A lot of that is because of the so-called war on coal that has animated that part of the country since 2010.”

To that end, it was ironic to see a few former White House officials and some Hollywood celebrities urging the party to engage in this month’s Louisiana Senate runoff—in a last-ditch attempt to hold down the Republican majority in the upper chamber. They lack the self-awareness to recognize that the Obama administration’s environmental policies make it all but impossible to compete in the energy-rich Southern state anymore. Former Sen. Mary Landrieu, who won three terms in red-state Louisiana, spent her final months in office furiously lobbying colleagues to support the Keystone pipeline. Her efforts failed, and she lost in a landslide. And this year’s Democratic nominee (Foster Campbell) is losing by 20 points in the upcoming runoff to his GOP opponent (John Kennedy), despite receiving considerable financial assistance from liberal activists.

Politically speaking, the Democratic divide between environmental activists and voters concerned about the economic impact of regulations is akin to the divide between the GOP’s immigration hard-liners and party leaders. On immigration, Republicans faced the uncomfortable reality that their voting base was at odds with the party leadership. Democrats have the same problem, except their leaders are the ones most resistant to any changes.

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