Climate change and the politics of conviction
[Ed. note: Please welcome to C&L our old friend and erstwhile congressional candidate from Washington's 8th District, Darcy Burner. Darcy's now heading up Progressive Congress, and we hope to have her contribute posts as often as she's willing and able. -- DN]
We talk a lot about wanting representatives who will display courage and conviction. But the real test of that isn’t what they do when it’s easy – it’s what they do when it’s hard.
When I was running for Congress, my son Henry would take every opportunity he could to talk about climate change. He talked to me, he talked to Democrats at legislative district meetings, he grabbed the microphone if he saw TV cameras. He used my webcam two years ago to cut this video:
Today the U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the Waxman-Markey energy bill, the most significant climate change legislation in history. It establishes a cap-and-trade regulatory system designed to decrease the amount of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere over the next several years.
Today's bill is, alas, a deeply flawed and compromised bill. There are provisions related to coal and nuclear energy that I don’t agree with; the renewable energy standard provisions aren’t as aggressive as I and most progressives would like; and a significant percentage of the carbon credits are given away to polluters rather than being auctioned off for the public good.
But it also puts in place the first framework in our history for addressing the carbon emissions that are central to catastrophic climate change.
The disagreements among progressives on this are not about whether we need to address climate change, nor about whether this is a flawed bill, but instead about what the outcome will be if this vote fails today. Would we get a better bill? Would we get a worse bill? Would we get no bill?
It's not clear to me which side has the better strategic read. But it is clear to me that there are Members in very tough districts who are about to risk their chances of re-election because their convictions will lead them to vote in a way that is politically damaging to them – people like Congressman Tom Perriello.
If you’re a progressive in a marginal district, voting no is the smart move. It gives the Republicans no ammunition against you. When gas prices are sky-high next summer, they can’t say it’s because you voted for a huge tax increase on energy. And you can say to progressives that you did it because this bill wasn’t good enough; you’re covered coming and going.
However, if this does turn out to be the one chance we get, then defeating the bill is arguably the kind of mistake that would haunt a person of good conscience for a lifetime.
For those same progressives in marginal districts, voting yes ends up being entirely about conviction and principle, because it sure as heck isn’t the savvy political move. It gives the Republicans ammunition – "Rep. Such-and-Such voted for the largest tax increase in history, and your gas and energy prices have skyrocketed because of it. Vote them out, now." And in those marginal districts, where we don’t have the concentrations of environmentally-minded voters present in places like the district I ran in, that argument will carry weight.
We talk a lot about wanting representatives who will display courage and conviction. But the real test of that isn’t what they do when it’s easy – it’s what they do when it’s hard. Voting yes on this bill in a marginal district is hard, and clearly about choosing to do what’s right over doing what would protect you politically.
We will have some Members who are about to do something incredibly hard because they truly believe it’s right. It seems to me that it’s worth moving mountains to keep people like that in Congress.
Disclaimer: This was posted in my personal capacity, not any organizational or official one.