The climate question Democratic moderates must answer
How are you going to get emissions down 45 percent by 2030?
As the 2020 presidential race gears up, jostling for position has already begun. Moderate Democrats are beginning to develop their traditional argumentative frame, portraying their own politics as the safe choice and against the risky leftism that might divide the party.
This frame is misleading, but worse, it exculpates the moderates from the moral requirement that they come up with ideas to deal with the severe problems besetting the country — above all climate change.
A good example of the moderate frame comes from an article by The New York Times' Jonathan Martin. "Will candidates sprint to the left on issues and risk hurting themselves with intraparty policy fights and in the general election? Or will they keep the focus squarely on Mr. Trump and possibly disappoint liberals by not being bolder on policy?"
The implicit premise here is that there is a trade-off between electability and lefty policy — that the safe move in terms of beating Trump is to not have a furious policy debate or push radical solutions, but instead go with a moderate and half-measure policies.
As an initial matter, it's not at all obvious that there's such a tradeoff. Hillary Clinton was the moderate candidate in 2016, and she lost what should have been a lay-up election. Lefty policies generally poll well, and the most prominent lefty politicians are pretty popular. Predicting who will win is a tricky business — as shown by the mile-long parade of Politics Knowers who absolutely beclowned themselves declaiming that Trump could not possibly win the primary or the general.
Of course, one can't know how for sure how another candidate might have done in 2016. But fundamentally, the basic political fact about Trump is that he is unpopular. His party got trounced in the 2018 midterms despite non-presidential elections favoring conservative demographics, and the economy doing better than at any time in a decade. He is an oaf incapable of governing and is infuriating the public with his stupid shutdown — which itself may tip the economy into recession. This militates against fixating on electability considerations, as just about anyone ought to be able to whip Trump soundly.
But let's set that aside, and grant for the sake of argument that a moderate might have a better chance. The reason why that would matter is that Trump is a horrible president who is wreaking untold havoc hither and yon, and thus it's morally urgent to replace him. But moral questions do not end there — there is also the merciless hellmouth that is the American health-care system and onrushing climate catastrophe, to name just two really big problems that will require aggressive policies to fix.
Joe Biden is thus far leading presidential polls, and he has largely stayed mum on both of these questions. As I have previously written, his policy ideas are focused on small-bore ideas to help the working class. The policies are mostly okay, but are partly based on false premises and clearly inadequate to even get workers a fair share of economic output — because that would require stiff taxes on the rich, something Biden doesn't like. He says nothing at all about Medicare-for-all — indeed he suggests that traditional Medicare might need cuts. And though he supported the very first climate bill back in 1986, he has not come out for a Green New Deal or any other specific plan.
America can't afford another eight years of a moderate party fiddling while the climate burns, or even making things worse, which is exactly what happened during the Obama years. Democrats in those days failed to pass a climate bill that wasn't even that great, and it took the administration five years after that to put out an executive order that was just as inadequate. In the meantime, the Obama administration ushered in a massive expansion of American oil and gas drilling that has made the U.S. the biggest producer of both oil and natural gas in the world. Part of the motivation was that natural gas is cleaner fuel than coal climate-wise, but methane (the main component of natural gas) itself is much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and it turns out leaks more than cancel out the relative climate benefit. Whoops!
If they are to take the moral responsibilities of governing the United States seriously, moderates can't just hide behind "better than Trump." The scientists say we have about a decade to cut our emissions by 45 percent. If lefty ideas like a Green New Deal are too radical for moderates, then by God they better come up with something that achieves the same objective.