A climate debate could be risky for Dems — but many want it anyway
Democrats across the ideological spectrum want their party to dedicate one of its presidential primary debates to climate change — despite the risk of exposing their own divides.
At least five presidential candidates have backed fellow presidential contender Jay Inslee’s idea for a climate-centric debate, in a sign of the issue’s growing profile among Democratic voters.
Story Continued Below
But a public debate might also force Democratic contenders to confront policy differences they have so far papered over, including how quickly they would push the U.S. to shift away from the fossil fuels that provide union jobs. The candidates would also face pressure to offer specifics on their position on the Green New Deal, the ambitious progressive climate resolution that Republicans have sought to tar as an expensive socialist boondoggle.
Presidential candidates like Beto O’Rourke have released ambitious climate change plans on the heels of pressure campaigns from progressive activists, while others, like former Vice President Joe Biden, face big questions about how ambitious an agenda they will lay out while balancing the needs of organized labor. Democrats also have a far from unified position on questions such as whether natural gas and nuclear power should have any role in combating climate change, in a sign of how far leftward the discussion has shifted since Barack Obama left the White House.
Still, even Democratic lawmakers defending tough seats in 2020 said political risks shouldn’t deter the presidential hopefuls from giving the Earth’s climate the prime role it deserves.
“This is the most important issue that we face as a planet and a species right now,” said freshman Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.), who in November flipped a seat that Republicans had held for decades. He added, “If you don’t want to have public debate, this is probably the wrong line of work for you.”
Some more conservative Democrats welcomed a climate debate as well, saying it would offer a chance to showcase a variety of potential solutions, not just the Green New Deal that Republicans are eager to hang around the necks of the entire party.
“I think the planet would be better served if we had an honest discussion about what Democrats are really talking about,” said Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), a member of the more centrist New Democrat Coalition who has not yet endorsed a presidential candidate. He was one of nearly two dozen Democratic lawmakers of all ideological stripes who told POLITICO last week that they support holding such a debate.
The DNC remains non-committal on the idea of a climate-centered debate. The Democrats’ first presidential is scheduled for June 26-27 in Miami, followed by a second two-night session in late July in Detroit and a third debate in September.
“The DNC is currently ironing out the details for all 12 debates and will work with the networks to ensure that Democrats have a platform to discuss these issues directly with the American people,” spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa said in a statement.
One former DNC official who was involved in the process four years ago said Chairman Tom Perez and his team probably would informally gather input from an array of advocates, elected officials and party members before deciding on the debate formats.
The idea for a primary debate dedicated to climate change has been gaining traction since Inslee first proposed it in April. Fellow contenders Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have also backed the idea, as has former Obama Cabinet official Julián Castro. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who recently unveiled his climate pitch, told POLITICO he thought such a debate would be “great.”
A coalition of progressive and environmental groups, including CREDO Action, the Sunrise Movement, Friends of the Earth Action, Public Citizen and 350 Action, have also petitioned for a debate. Three Democratic senators — Brian Schatz of Hawaii, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico — sent a letter to NBC and MSNBC last week urging the networks “to devote a significant amount of time to a discussion on climate action” in the upcoming debates.
Singling out climate change may invite pressure from outside advocates seeking similar issue-oriented debates on topics like gun control and women’s reproductive rights. Progressives, though, welcomed the prospect of building on the momentum for climate action generated by the lofty Green New Deal. And polls show climate change rising up the list of issues voters care about.
Some strategists voiced support for a climate-specific debate as long as Democrats go into it with eyes wide open — knowing that Republicans will almost certainly cast whatever solutions they offer as radical.
“I think it makes sense to do one of these, but to be perfectly clear hosting such a debate will not be without risks,” said Jim Manley, a former veteran aide to ex-Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. “One of the only plays that the Trump team has is exploiting divisions, real or imagined, within the Democratic Party. And they are going to have a field day cherry picking quotes and making up stuff like they did with Medicare for All.”
Some Democrats expressed concern that a climate-focused debate would only reinforce internal party divisions about how to respond to the crisis, even though the presidential candidates unanimously agree on the need for aggressive action.
“I wouldn’t necessarily go for that,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), a member of the New Democrat Coalition who has also endorsed the Green New Deal, H. Res. 109 (116). “If you’re going to try to get everybody [united], you need to be talking about all the things that people care about.” Others, like Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), were unsure about singling out climate change over issues like gun control, although he said he’s “attracted” to the notion of single-issue sessions.
Republicans said they thought such a debate would backfire by showcasing internal Democratic tensions while highlighting what they’ve deemed radical, far-left policies.
“I’m happy they want to have a discussion,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a senior member of Senate leadership. He added that Democrats “get to decide what they want to debate and voters will decide what they want to vote on” — but he warned that the Green New Deal “will blow a hole into our strong, healthy and growing economy.”
The vast majority of Democrats who spoke to POLITICO shrugged off those concerns, saying recent opinion surveys show that voters won’t punish them for pushing aggressively on climate change.
A March CNN-Des Moines Register poll of Iowa voters found that 80 percent of Democrats wanted presidential candidates to make climate change a top priority, second only to health care. Recent Monmouth University polling found that Iowa Democrats consider climate change their second most important issue behind health care, and that nationally, 69 percent of Americans support the government doing more to address the problem.
And in a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll released last week, 63 percent of registered voters nationwide said it’s either important or a top priority for Congress to pass a bill to address climate change.
That makes it even smarter for Democrats to enshrine the issue in one of their debates, some leading party members say.
“It is not only a good idea, I think it is a real prerequisite to getting this enormously important issue the attention it deserves,” said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Finance Committee. “There ought to be a way to get it the visibility and attention it deserves rather than seeing it just jammed in — in some way — to a bigger debate. There are a number of people I know who really think it’s overdue.”