Mistakes We Should Not Repeat: Part 4

Mistake 4: Walking away from a fight.

The mistakes I have urged that we must not repeat are: failing to look back when you must; failing to address the toxic flood of dark money into our politics; failing to use or even give an honest look at obvious legal tools at our disposal; and now, the final one, just walking away from an important fight.

God bless Nancy Pelosi and her team, particularly Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, for getting the “cap and trade” climate bill passed by the House in 2009. It was a serious climate bill, the only serious climate bill ever passed by either chamber of Congress. It would have made a significant difference in fossil fuel emissions. It wasn’t easy. For some House members it was a heroic but politically fatal vote. But she got it done.

With a House-passed bill in hand, and a filibuster-proof Senate then with 60 Democrats, the Obama administration decided to walk away from climate change. “We’re not going to take on any fights we’re not sure we can win,” I was told. The Senate did nothing, not even a skeleton bill to get into conference with the House; and for years afterward the administration barely even mentioned climate change. In 2015, the administration finally produced its complex and balky “Clean Power Plan,” which five Republican Supreme Court Justices promptly suspended before it could go into effect. The Clean Power Plan was designed without the fail-safe of an indisputably legal regulatory core to fall back on if its novel ambitions failed — so that was the end of that. In late 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry, another hero of this saga, at last got us into the Paris Climate Agreement; the Paris agreement was insufficient on its face, but it was an important beachhead for further international progress. Trump put an end to that, leaving nothing: no climate bill, no Clean Power Plan, no U.S. treaty.

One of the reasons we walked away is that polling never showed climate in the top three or four issues. But we ourselves are culpable in that. When the leaders of a political party never mention an issue, voters will respond to that signal; and we enter a self-perpetuating cycle of self-doubt and weakness. Keeping oneself in touch with public opinion is vital in politics; Abraham Lincoln kept an open White House to give himself a “public opinion bath.” But poll-chasing isn’t leadership. It’s equally important to lead public opinion where right and wrong are clear and the prize is worth the contest. It’s particularly important to ‘use our outside voices’ when the other side is blaring non-stop lies through a paid megaphone. Under the circumstances, with non-stop fossil-fuel-funded propaganda blaring from one side and deafening silence from the other, it’s actually pretty impressive where the public was on climate. We could have made a big difference, if we’d piped up.

But we did neither. We walked away from the parliamentary fight and we walked away from the fight for public opinion. It is heartbreaking to think how little we ended up accomplishing on climate in those eight years, and painful to predict what the climate consequences of that failure might be. We cannot let that happen again. The fights you’re not sure you can win are often the most important ones, and leading rather than following public opinion can be our most important duty in politics.

U.S. Senator from Rhode Island, the Ocean State.