Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The politics of US energy policy

The past few decades of US politics have been dominated by a strategy of polarization. This approach isn't necessarily the only way to be elected, but both parties have followed along because it is the script they know and understand. Polarization has two basic consequences. First, it depicts the world in simple black and white terms designed to motivate a party's base and vilify the opponents. Second, it alienates those in the center. The result is to drive down voter turnout among the unpredictable middle (particularly young voters) and turn elections into a contest between the extremes, i.e., those groups that the parties know how to reach and influence.

Obama's election, as I have argued here, was interesting precisely because he broke from this mold. His election turned largely on his ability to expand the pool of voters -- that is to get youth who had not voted in previous elections to come to the polls. But, while the Obama campaign had a brilliant strategy for the 2008 election, they have failed miserably in their attempt to transform Washington politics.

One of the most detailed (and depressing) accounts of this failure can be found in an article by Ryan Lizza, As the World Burns: How the Senate and the White House missed their best chance to deal with climate change in the current issue of the New Yorker. The article describes the factors that initially brought together an unusual coalition of Senators (Republican Lindsey Graham, Independent Joe Lieberman, and Democrat John Kerry) to draft a Senate energy and climate change bill and a second set of factors that blew apart the coalition before the bill was brought to a vote.

Tom Friedman, in his recent editorial "An X-Ray of Dysfunction", uses quotes from Lizza's analysis to identify factors relevant to understanding how the policy negotiations went off track.
A TV network acting as the political enforcer of the Republican Party: Lizza: “Back in Washington, Graham warned Lieberman and Kerry that they needed to get as far as they could in negotiating the bill ‘before Fox News got wind of the fact that this was a serious process,’ one of the people involved in the negotiations said. ‘He would say: The second they focus on us, it’s gonna be all cap-and-tax all the time, and it’s gonna become just a disaster for me on the airwaves. We have to move this along as quickly as possible.’ ”

Special interests buying policy: Lizza: “Then Newt Gingrich’s group, American Solutions, whose largest donors include coal and electric-utility interests, began targeting Graham with a flurry of online articles about the ‘Kerry-Graham-Lieberman gas tax bill.’ ”

Politicians who put their interests before the country’s: Lizza: “Then, suddenly, there was a new problem: Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, said that he wanted to pass immigration reform before the climate-change bill. It was a cynical ploy. Everyone in the Senate knew that there was no immigration bill. Reid was in a tough re-election, and immigration activists, influential in his home state of Nevada, were pressuring him.”

A political system that cannot manage multiple policy shifts at once — even though it needs to: Lizza: Obama aide Jay Heimbach attended meetings with the three sponsoring senators, “but almost never expressed a policy preference or revealed White House thinking. ‘It’s a drum circle,’ one Senate aide lamented. ‘They come by: How are you feeling? Where do you think the votes are? What do you think we should do? It’s never: Here’s the plan, here’s what we’re doing.’ Said one Obama adviser, explaining the president’s difficulty in motivating Congressional Democrats on energy: ‘The horse has been ridden hard this year and just wants to go back to the barn.’ ”

I just have one thing to add: We need to do better. ...

But, as the current elections are showing, polarization is back with a vengeance. And, oddly, the only one who seems seriously concerned about it is a comedian.

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