Monday, April 26, 2010


I'm as baffled as anyone by the apparent decision from the Democrats to give up on climate/energy and move immigration to the Senate floor.  First of all, I'm baffled about whether or not its an actual decision.  We have the CNN story (linked to above) that says so, followed by some rather mild White House pushback over the weekend.  On the other hand, there's no actual bill to work on in the Senate yet on immigration, while climate/energy is close to ready for floor consideration.

My initial reaction was that this is a mistake by the White House (or Harry Reid, or whoever is making the decision), but even more so I'm not sure I understand the logic of it.  The more I think about it, alas, the more confused I get, so after a few discarded drafts of posts that attempted to explain what they're doing, I realized that the main problem I have is that I can't figure out what facts, or beliefs, they're working from.  So here's an attempt to at least get the playing field set up correctly.
What are the factors here?  Well,  first of all, there's the Democrats' judgment about the chances of either bill passing and being signed into law.  It's hard to believe that they think that immigration has a real chance (see Ezra Klein's comments), but we know a lot less about their sense of climate/energy.  Then, a second question is how they see the two bills politically.  Do they believe that revving up Latino groups is worth annoying anti-immigrant groups?  On climate/energy, are environmentalists a bigger group than those who might react by worrying about jobs?

So while my initial reaction is to agree with Ezra Klein and Jonathan Chait that the White House is making a mistake here, whether that's correct or not really depends on knowing the answers to those questions (that is, the answers to what Democratic leaders in Congress and the White House think). And that's just the first level, because it's also possible that they're wrong about the politics of the two issues, or the politics of getting the two bills through Congress.

For example:  Suppose that industrial state Democratic Senators have made it clear to Reid that they simply will not vote for a climate bill.  Or, suppose that the White House believed that a Kerry/Lieberman/Graham bill is likely to actually pass the Senate -- but that it has no chance in the House.  If either of these is true, then the decision is purely one of election-year politics, because a bill is (considered to be) impossible.  In that case, I'm not so sure that choosing immigration is a mistake.  Or, it's possible that there's serious substantive objections from experts, in and out of government, to the kind of bill that could pass.  If that's the case, the White House (and Congressional leaders) may believe that moving ahead on climate/energy might lead to bad public policy.  In any of these cases, it's reasonable to believe that forcing tough votes in the quest for signing something worthwhile and then not getting a bill might be bad politics.

I do have one other thought about this...I was thinking of doing a post and titling it something like "Climate/Energy Bill Demise: It's Jane Hamsher's Fault," but since what I'm saying is I suppose speculative, I decided to hide it down here in the sixth or so paragraph of a fairly rambling post.  But here goes.  Suppose that the White House does believe that climate/energy has a pretty good chance to be signed into law, but that in order for that to happen, it will require another very high profile round of sausage-making.  And, even more than in health care reform, the White House believes that the results would involve quite a bit of compromise.  The problem here is that the White House is well aware that prominent liberal yakkers are unlikely to rally behind whatever Reid and Pelosi claim is necessary; instead, they are extremely likely to react with charges of sell-out, with claims that no bill would be better than a compromised bill, and with threats to stay home in November.  I'm differentiating here between climate/energy experts, who Democratic leaders should certainly be consulting, and Democratic activists who might take a "purist" position that any compromise is bad news.  At some point, the president and his aides (and the House and Senate leadership) might just say: why bother?   Is it really worth passing a marginal bill, even if it would be marginally worth it on substantive grounds, if the likely political effects are to keep Republicans riled up and at the same time just frustrate liberal activists?  Especially since, unlike health care, the effects of passing climate/energy are unlikely as far as I know to be noticeable to anyone, certainly not before Election Day in November.

Having raised that, I need to qualify it somewhat.  First, the scenario does depend on a gap appearing between the policy views of  vocal liberal activists and liberal experts.  That certainly happened in health care.  Would it happen in climate/energy?  I think it's a little less likely, because of how interest groups are organized; there is no real "health care reform" interest group, but there are environmental groups, and liberal activists are likely to take their cues from those groups -- and those groups, in turn, may be more likely to listen to liberal experts.  But it certainly could happen.  The other part of this is that I think it would be a mistake for the White House to pay very much attention to dissenting liberal activists.  The evidence on health care is that liberals overall were very happy with the bill, and continue to support the president, regardless of dissent to the left.  Granted, Democrats this fall would be happier with enthusiastic support from all progressives, but it's easy to overstate the amount of dissent on health care reform.

It's also possible that the White House is following the line of thinking, spouted here by Joe Klein, that "the public has had quite enough, thank you, of government activism this year."  If so, I disagree; I see no evidence from polling that "doing too much" is hurting the Democrats.  Doing unpopular things would hurt, but I think the only people who are upset about "government activism" are the people who would oppose the Democrats whatever they did.

So after all that, I don't really have much of a conclusion.  I guess what I'd say is that if Reid, Pelosi, and Obama believe that a climate bill can pass, then they should try to pass it.  There will be plenty of time later, if they want it, to allow immigration to be shot down in the Senate (it doesn't take long to lose a cloture vote on a motion to proceed).  But if they believe that no climate bill can be done, or if the only bill that can be done isn't worth it on substantive grounds, then backing off makes plenty of sense.


  1. My optimistic take is that killing Kerry/Lieberman/Graham helps Cantwell-Collins, and since Cantwell-Collins is a lot simpler the Hamshers ought to like it a lot better. I trust Collins more than Graham anyway. Now if only Obama would signal support for Cantwell-Collins.

  2. The only way I can read the decision to push ahead on immigration over climate/energy is that the Reid & the White House must believe there is no way to pass the climate/energy bill this year. Obama has strongly stated that the climate/energy bill is a major focus of his administration. I don't see him throwing in the towel unless they are confident there is no hope of passage. I doubt they will be able to get all 59 Dems for the climate/energy bill and so far Graham has not been able to get any Republicans votes so you are looking at a major fight that you will lose. You are probably gonna lose on immigration as well but as least you will be able to please a key voting block.

  3. I think it's all about driving a stake through the heart of the Republican Party. Teanuts have been trying to pretend they aren't racist for months, and then we have William Gheen telling S.C. Tea Partiers that Lindsey Graham is backing immigration reform because he's afraid of being outted. Oh, my. Meanwhile, immigrants-rights activists are getting antsy that the Administration has not put immigration on the front burner. Plus, we just had a massive march for immigration reform, so those activists are organized and antsy and eager to be heard.

    In short, it's just politics.

    Gas prices are going to be rising through the summer (as they do every year) and from a PR perspective which narrative do you want going into the fall election season: that Democrats are weak-kneed tree huggers who want high energy prices to help Al Gore's alternative energy fund, or that Republicans are racists trying to round up all the brown people and toss them out of the country? I think Dems view immigration as a winner for them, climate change less so.

  4. I agree completely with Southern Beale - Reid and the White House probably feel that raising the immigration issue now will split some Republicans and mobilize the Democratic base, giving them a better shot at keeping a couple of additional Senate seats and thus advancing their agenda in the next Congress. Forcing Republicans like Scott Brown to either break rank or look like an ideological partisan either dampens base enthusiasm or alienates moderates. Meanwhile, Harry Reid, Barbara Boxer and others would love a good Hispanic turnout in the upcoming elections.

    If the parties involved view this as a trade between 2-3 Senate seats vs. a relatively weak climate change bill then it's not hard to see why this decision was made.

  5. Isn't it just that, outside of relatively small progressive sectors few are urgently exercised over climate change? Or correction, the only ones who are are constituents of right wing populism with effective media megaphones? At least with immigration, while angering the anti-immigrant crowd, the dems will also excite a solid and proven base. Moreover, playing immigration reform now highlights the less savory elements of the republican base, elements the democrats may hope will be distasteful to some independents? Just seems like a more prudential move, policy merits aside.

  6. For all of their usual political faults, the Democrats have played immigration smart in recent years. Yes, opposing 187 in California lost 1994, but it won the war: Latinos in CA have essentially abandoned the GOP (and have registered to vote in MUCH higher numbers), and CA has gone from being a vaguely competitive state to being very blue.
    More recently, they played immigration under Bush perfectly, by letting the GOP kill their own president's bill. Dems stayed entirely silent in that debate, and that worked out really well.
    Immigration isn't a winner for the Dems, but it can be a loser for the Reps. Dems do well to bring it up but do nothing, and let Lou Dobbs claim that a scourge of leprosy is coming.

  7. However, I think they'd be even smarter to do financial reform. That IS a winner: Wall Street Fat Cats Bad is easy for people to understand, particularly if you aren't going to increase their taxes to pay for something (or do something that people THINK will mean a tax increase).
    Right now, the GOP is realizing that they're FAR on the wrong side of this one, but there's no reason not to hold their feet to the coals for a month.

  8. First, I totally agree with everything Matt said above.

    I wanted to add that another reason Dems may be looking past climate/energy is that even if you get it thru the Senate (huge If there) then you have to go back to the House. Waxman's bill had a handful of GOP votes last June but there is no way you get those votes again so you would have to got Dems who voted no the first time in order to pull this off. That is gonna be a hard vote to get this close to the mid-terms.

  9. I think Reid's decided the Senate's not getting anything else done this year (except the Supreme Court pick and maybe financial regulation) and he'd rather have the unresolved legislative fight of the summer be over immigration than climate change. I think Hispanic turnout is a consideration but the big appeal of the immigration issue is that it splits the donor class from the activists on the Republican side. The hope is that one of these groups gets annoyed and demobilized prior to the election (presumably the business wing, assuming that McConnell shoots down reform).

    Dave H

  10. I don't understand the Dems who don't understand the politics of this.

    A bunch of people have already said it well here.

    There is basically no short term upside to the climate bill. It probably can't pass and the political optics - short term - are good for the GOP and advance a narrative they want advanced.

    Immigration is just a horrible, horrsible issue for the GOP. I think it is almost existentially bad for them. Short term, it has some downsides for for the Dems, but it is just horrible for the GOP. I don't think people realize how badly things like the Sensenbrenner Law in 2005 and this Arizona thing are for Republicans. It helps, I think if you live in the west, where the Latino community is much larger, maybe.

    But Latino votes were absolutely key to Democratic success in '06 and '08.

  11. Anon 2:39 (and others),

    I'm not at all as certain as you that bringing up the immigration bill plays all that well for Dems in 2010. The other way of looking at it is that the GOP has already done the job of driving Latino voters away; I'm really not sure how much bringing up a bill (especially since it won't pass) will help drive Latino turnout, and outside of that population, I'd imagine raising the profile of that issue hurts the Dems.

    On the larger question, to Dave H. and others, it sounds as if most commenters are convinced that climate/energy is dead whether the Dems try or not. That may be, but I guess I'm not convinced, at least based on the coverage I've seen. Of course, if Reid & the Dems think its the case, then that explains things whether or not they're correct.

  12. Jonathan, it could well increase Latino turnout, and move a few more percentage points away from the GOP (what were they getting in 2008?). I remember reading about prop 187 back in the early 90's, in TNR. The author claimed that this increased Latino citizenships, voter registration and turnout, since it was a clear attack on the Latino community.


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