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Who Killed Cap And Trade?

This is going to sound a little weird, but I think my friend and former colleague Ryan Lizza's long New Yorker piece on the failure of cap and trade is both a phenomenal tour de force of reporting while also fundamentally wrong. As an argument, the article makes two basic claims. First, the failure of cap and trade means "perhaps the last best chance to deal with global warming in the Obama era, was officially dead." And second, the legislation's death can be largely, or perhaps even principally, attributed to the Obama administration's bungling and lack of commitment.

Of course, the article is not primarily about those claims so much as it is walking readers through the story of how the bill died. And the piece is filled with so much compelling detail that almost any section picked at random is worth excerpting. I thought this section was both especially interesting, and worth highlighting because of what it says about Ryan's larger point:

By late January, 2009, the details of the Lieberman-McCain bill had been almost entirely worked out, and Lieberman began showing it to other Senate offices in anticipation of a February press conference. The goal was to be the centrist alternative to a separate effort, initiated by Barbara Boxer, a liberal from California and the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
But the negotiations stalled as the bill moved forward. In Arizona, a right-wing radio host and former congressman, J. D. Hayworth, announced that he was considering challenging McCain in the primary. McCain had never faced a serious primary opponent for his Senate seat, and now he was going to have to defend his position on global warming to hard-core conservative voters. The Republican Party had grown increasingly hostile to the science of global warming and to cap-and-trade, associating the latter with a tax on energy and more government regulation. Sponsoring the bill wasn’t going to help McCain defeat an opponent to his right.

By the end of February, McCain was starting to back away from his commitment to Lieberman. At first, he insisted that he and Lieberman announce a set of climate-change “principles” instead of a bill. Then, three days before a scheduled press conference to announce those principles, the two senators had a heated conversation on the Senate floor. Lieberman turned and walked away. “That’s it,” he told an aide. “He can’t do it this year."

I think this anecdote is significant, and I want to return to it momentarily. But first consider Ryan's indictment of the administration. He shows that the sponsors of the climate change bill, Lindsey Graham, Lieberman, and John Kerry, had plenty of legitimate greivances with the White House. Obama was not showing a determination to pass a bill. At key junctures, he made unilateral concessions that the threesome had hoped to trade for GOP support. And someone in his administration needlessly antagonized Graham. The detail is fantastic and damning of Obama, but the conclusion that these events were decisive seems questionable.

First of all, Ryan briefly mentions public opinion, which was indifferent to climate change and hostile to cap and trade, but assigns this factor a fairly minor role in his analysis. I think it was a major factor, and contributed to the sense among Democrats that imposing higher energy prices during an economic crisis was untenable.

Second, I don't think the votes were ever going to be there in the Senate for cap and trade. I can't prove that a different set of circumstances wouldn't have produced those votes. But a general lack of Senate conviction was apparent all along. Many Democrats expressed severe reservations about the bill from the beginning. While they approved legislative language to pass health care reform through a simple majority vote, they rejected (by a vote of 67-31) a proposal to do the same for cap and trade. Cap and trade, in addition to lacking public support, was simply a less mature issue that had not achieved the same kind of party concensus. In many ways it resembled health care in 1994, when numerous Democratic Senators openly wished Bill Clinton would leave the issue alone.

Ryan's article takes a highly sympathetic view of Graham's behavior. His slow retreat from his own bill is presented as a response to Democratic blunders and provocations. The more accurate interpretation, I'd argue, is that Graham fell into his climate advocacy through political blundering. (I think the great detail in Ryan's narrative actually supports this interpretation. Read it for yourself.) When it became clear that he was triggering a furious right-wing backlash, Graham began looking for the exit signs, and a series of Democratic slip-ups became his justification. But the hard fact is that a Republican Senator from any state, let alone South Carolina, who pushed through cap and trade would be sealing his political doom. I think Graham only got in the position of sponsoring the bill before he figured this out. And he may be brave by Senatorial standards, but I see no reason to think he's willing to sacrifice his career for this issue.

And as for the "last, best chance," I do agree that cap and trade represented the best chance, but not the last chance. As Brad has argued, EPA regulation is a fairly strong alternative means of redress. That, combined with tighter auto emission standards and subsidies for alternative energy, do add up to a decent piecemeal response to the climate crisis.

Obviously, a great deal hinges upon the administration sticking to its regulatory plan (which, unlike cap and trade, is popular) and fending off conservative efforts to stop the EPA. But if the administration wins that fight -- a big if -- I think its approach to climate change will be seen as a major accomplishment. The failure to pass a cap and trade bill should, properly, be remembered as yet another failure of the Senate.

Anyway, one of the strengths of the article is that it provides such rich narrative detail that it lends itself well even to interpretations that conflict with the author's. Definitely read it for yourself.