Joe Biden doesn't need to pander to environmentalists
Crazy Uncle Joe. You know the guy: Former veep blasting around Dover in a red-hot T-top, probably a Stingray, with his shades on, explaining to the chick next to him that as far as their neglected '80s catalogue goes, Foghat's In the Mood for Something Rude whips so much ass and ... endorsing the Green New Deal? The same guy who, on a scale of Jay "My campaign is literally only about climate change" Inslee to John "They smoke that stuff in my state" Hickenlooper, scores well, a John Hickenlooper, since Greenpeace gives both of them a D-minus rating on the environment?
On Tuesday, Biden's campaign released a 22-page document outlining his new position on climate change. True to form for a guy who upended his first presidential campaign 31 years ago by trying to pass off a speech by a Welsh coal miner's son as his own at the Iowa State Fair, the Biden climate plan appears to be largely a cut-and-paste job assembled out of various talking points from outfits with names like the "Center for Climate and Energy Solutions."
The Biden campaign is already making light of the alleged plagiarism, insisting that "citations were inadvertently left out." Whatever. It's probably fair to say that a sentence like "As a result, the average American sewage pipe is 33 years old, with many pipes dating back 50 or even 100 years" is too affectless to belong to anyone — though it would be easier to make that argument if Biden's record with oopsies like this didn't date all the way back to his time in law school, when he stole five pages from a journal article for a paper.
Still, I think the low-level dishonesty here matters less than the fact that Biden decided to put out a plan like this in the first place. Headlines suggesting that Biden has actually come out in favor of the plan introduced into the House by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are a bit misleading. His platform is at odds with hers and that of Sen. Ed Markey on any number of specifics: for example, the date at which the United States will fulfill its mystical destiny of zero net emissions. The seers in Biden's employ seem to believe that the prophecy will be fulfilled in the Year of Our Lord 2050, some 20 years after AOC predicts.
Don't get me wrong. It is easy to understand why someone like Biden might be tempted to do this. In 2050 the youngest people eligible to vote in next year's presidential election will be 48 years old. Biden himself would have to live to 108 to see whether his lofty pledge is honored, by which time the world will doubtless have better things to do than attempt to hold a centenarian to account for something he said 30 years ago. Anything can happen over the course of eight presidential elections and goodness knows how many shifts of power in Congress and the judiciary, which is why politicians announce these plans all the time.
But there are other, somewhat less remote reasons to find Biden's about-face on climate bizarre. The former vice president is the embodiment of neoliberal centrism in the Democratic party. This should be enough to guarantee him the nomination. His lead in the polls already looks well-nigh insurmountable. Does he really think he is going to peel away support from Bernie Sanders with this move? Earnest progressives who are committed to the Green New Deal will doubt his sincerity. (They will be right to do so: In his disastrous 2007 run for the Democratic nomination, he claimed that "energy security" was his first priority. No one believed him then either.)
Meanwhile, other constituencies within the broader Democratic coalition whose support Biden has already secured will be put off by this move. The Green New Deal is almost universally opposed by hard-hat labor unions. The leader of his own party in Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has dismissed it as "the green dream or whatever." Environmental issues rarely rank among the top reported priorities of African-American voters, who play a prominent role in many crucial Democratic primaries in the South next year. Nor is aping progressive talking points about the environment likely to do him any favors with the moderate Democrats who supported him and Barack Obama twice before switching to Donald Trump in 2016 in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
Whose support is he trying to win here? Some tiny but crucial segment of the Democratic primary electorate who are not put off by his right-wing record on criminal justice or his unwavering support for the Iraq War or his coziness with the finance industry but for whom his refusal to mouth a phrase that rhymes with "Lean True Steal" is a deal breaker? Do these people actually exist? Maybe they are one of those uncontacted tribes, like the Akulio of Suriname. In any case, there can't be very many of them.
A few months ago, in what feels like another geological epoch, I was one of the roughly 99 percent of commentators who thought that Biden's ideological baggage and his handsiness would keep him from entering the Democratic race. This was the best-case scenario. At worst, I thought that by running for president he would destroy his proud legacy as the luckiest man in American politics, a failson senator who somehow vaulted into the number-two job in the country only to fall and break his neck rather than accept a quiet retirement just below the top. I was wrong.
Joe Biden doesn't need to pander to environmentalists. But I have learned my lesson about insisting that doing so could hurt him in 2020. If it doesn't, though, I wonder if anything can.