AGAINST THE GRAIN

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
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
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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