The second Democratic debate Wednesday evening was a bit of a boring mess. The first 45 minutes on health care were muddled and confusing, and a great deal of time was taken up with attempts by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Kamala Harris (Calif.) to land blows on former Vice President Joe Biden by attacking his past, each of which mostly failed — in large part because both have troubled histories of their own.
But one candidate stood out, not for his performance as much as his reason for being on stage: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who is quite literally trying to save the world. He didn't have the wittiest put-downs or the most practiced talking points, but he is laser-focused on climate change, far and away the most important problem facing the United States. He almost certainly will not win — but he is doing his utmost to put climate policy on the national agenda, and putting in the work to develop a very strong plan the next president can take up.
Inslee didn't get a whole lot of speaking time, as he barely has any support and the moderators devoted little time to climate change in any case. It was also difficult to have any sort of substantive discussion with the 2-minute time limit for questions and 30 seconds for responses. Candidates could barely squeak out a couple paragraphs before the moderators started interrupting them — not ideal for discussing complicated policy.
Incidentally, this is a good reason for the Democratic Party to take the debates away from for-profit media companies. They can set them up themselves and broadcast on PBS or C-SPAN — and ideally have at least a few debates wholly given over to one or two topics, so the candidates can really dig in. At the very least, it's senseless for the party to subject its candidates to CNN's right-leaning moderators who keep trying to bait them into saying they will destroy the economy with tax hikes.
At any rate, Inslee did use most of his time to hammer on the "climate crisis," as he put it in his opening statement. He noted correctly that it affects literally everything: "Climate change is not a singular issue, it is all the issues that we Democrats care about. It is health. It is national security. It is our economy," he said. And he attacked Biden's weaksauce climate plan, saying "your plan is just too late. The science says we have to get off coal in 10 years. Your plan does not do that. We have to get off of fossil fuels from our electric grid in 15. Your plan simply does not do that." Biden retorted by boasting he would "double offshore wind" — but didn't note that there are only a piddling 30 megawatts of offshore wind capacity at the moment (though more is coming online soon).
There was not enough time to really dig into Inslee's plan, but as David Roberts explains in a series of articles for Vox (I, II, III, IV), it's far and away the most worked-out climate plan of any candidate — and better still, it's extremely aggressive. He would hugely crank up regulations and investment ($300 billion per year for a decade, used to leverage another $600 billion yearly in private funding) to get to zero-carbon electricity generation, most vehicles, and all new buildings by 2030. He would hugely boost green manufacturing and scientific research. He would phase out all domestic fossil fuel production as quickly as possible. And he would invest substantially in catching anyone thrown out of work as a result (as well as those who have been harmed by pollution or extractive industry in the past). Finally, he would reorient all U.S. foreign policy around tackling the climate crisis, mainly through diplomacy and international subsidies.
All told, it's a very strong policy.
Now, Inslee could have done better at using absolutely every scrap of opportunity to jam climate change into the discussion. Several times he answered questions honestly instead of turning to his pet topic, which is senseless for someone in his position. Fellow 2020 candidate Andrew Yang actually provides a great model for doing this, as he turned every question into a discussion of his universal basic income proposal. It made him sound a bit silly on occasion, but that's how to get maximum attention on a single issue.
And Inslee is absolutely right that climate change is by far the most important issue facing the next president. This isn't some kooky obsession for weirdos. Worse, President Trump has made the United States (the largest historical emitter) a rogue nation on climate. Our participation is at least necessary to have a good chance of tackling this problem. Kudos to Jay Inslee for trying to save America and human society.