A Consequential Decision

There is a very simple reason why there was no climate change legislation passed under Barack Obama, and why the climate action that was done was by executive orders that can easily be reversed under a President Trump. The reason was that Harry Reid in mid-2009 decided that the Senate would take up health care reform first and wait until 2010 for climate, also known as waiting until 200 years from next Wednesday. It was obvious from anyone who had lived through the 90s and who had noticed the intensity of controversy the early stages of the Affordable Care Act created that the Democrats were going to use up their political capital on health care and climate was highly unlikely to go anywhere, despite Pelosi already passing the House’s own Waxman-Markey bill.

I’ve heard various plausible explanations for why Reid made the call- chiefly that coal-state Democratic Senators were unhappy enough with anything done on climate, even with the carveouts for the energy industry included in Waxman-Markey, to make it much more difficult to form consensus within the party on the issue than on health care. This felt unsatisying to me at the time, partly because of my own interests but largely because the general election that had just taken place was far more focused on energy and climate than on health care, with Obama seemingly winning in part on the plausible proposition that expanded alternative energy and reduced use of oil would lessen the pull of foreign entanglements in the Middle East. Moreover, in the preceding primary, Obama had specifically sworn off the key to a Romneycare/Obamacare-style system, the insurance mandate, knowing it to be political poison, and leading many people, Paul Krugman among them, to believe that Obama the candidate was just not serious about health care, and others like 2007-era Matt Yglesias to  conclude that a mandate-based system was a fantasy that could never work.

Obama the president governed as a more conventional Democratic politician, which included prioritizing goals like health care which had a high degree of party consensus over goals like climate where there was more internal division, with the result that eight years later we have an ambitious health care law on the books, with large numbers of beneficiaries, but that is still not only politically controversial but still susceptible to the original pitfalls that Obama the candidate adroitly spied out long ago- a strict mandate is possibly unconstitutional as well as unpopular, and the “mandate as tax” that we were left with after John Roberts’s decision is quite possibly too weak to keep the whole system from falling apart in an adverse selection “death spiral, ” as shown by the rapidly rising premiums on the exchanges.

There are clear analogies but not necessarily lessons for the new Republican Administration here- from a left-liberal perspective, the passage of Obamacare was a clear victory, even if an incomplete one, and prioritizing party unity over individual idiosyncrasy arguably helped Obama far more than it hurt him. But the Republicans’ criticisms of the law- that it was too complex and too ambitious, that it was designed and sold by Jonathan Gruber-style wonks with a low opinion of the buying public- stuck in large part because they were true. Could a simpler and less ambitious law (a S-CHIP expansion for low income kids and a couple other patches to prop up the perennially failing individual market for insurance, perhaps) have left enough room for an energy and climate bill that would, in the absence of Obamacare, become the counterfactual focus of Republican ire? It seems possible, certainly. The once-in-a-lifetime filibuster-proof-majority Democrats won in 2009 was perhaps too seductive in its promise to do Big Things, though an intransigent opposition determined to make Obama a one-term president did its part as well. Obama benefited politically from his willingness to leave the big legislative decisions of his first term largely to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, though whether liberalism benefited- whether the Democrats’ more-or-less complete electoral defeat at all levels of government by 2016 was baked in the cake from the beginning, by larger forces of identity politics and demographic change, or whether an alternative, less party-bound presidency and a less ideologically polarizing 2009-2016 was achievable in another world, is impossible to know.



One thought on “A Consequential Decision

  1. The Democrat Party had a rare opportunity to (in concert with the significant number of Republican congressmen and establishment members) run the legislative table with their filibuster-proof majority and teflon President/spokesman. They could have passed every single one of their pet Progressive policy dreams, confident that the inevitable backlash would not be strong enough to actually un-do them. From national, single payer healthcare to an effective end of the subdivisions of Stares to significant and national impediments to legal handgun possession to universal daycare for every child over 6 weeks old to much higher income tax rates, and even a guaranteed income stream, all could have been ram rodded through and signed into law. It would have been magnificent. Horrible, but awe inspiring (awful) to witness. And, like most of the un-popular New Deal, it would have been largely durable.


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