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Carl Pope on Progressives and ACES final days in the House

June 27th, 2009 · 2 Comments

Friday, Sam Stein and Ryan Grim wrote on Huffington Post about the politics of the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act. They quoted Sierra Club head Carl Pope stating that progressives had helped drive the bill to the right by forcing more compromises with members like likely Global Warming-denier Collin Peterson.

“If Waxman-Markey can’t get the votes of reliable liberals, they are then forced to go to the right to get a majority,” Pope told the Huffington Post. The bill that has emerged isn’t as strong as it could be, he said, because of the “impact of the failure of liberals to commit on the bill.”

This quotation went flying around some circles, environmentalists and progressives (and some progressive environmentalists) with a “WTF?”-type commentary.

To be clear, we should place the very real inadequacies of Waxman-Markey at the feet of those responsible: fossil-foolish interests, people gullible to deception from the global warming denial wing of the Flat Earth Society, and those scared to lead rather than have to explain themselves in the face of massively deceptive advertising. And, we should recognize that the bill has real strengths in it, in no small part due to leadership by people like Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, but also due to the committed dedication of scientists and activists, environmentalists and progressives seeking to have a science-based policy that will improve the economy while turning the tide on global warming.

Thus, with the reality that the fault for ACES’ weaknesses fall not mainly on “reliable liberals”, Pope’s comment outraged quite a few.

Knowing Carl and also knowing the reality that even the best of journalists can report what they believe is accurate while fostering a misunderstanding, it seemed sensible to query Carl directly (see after the fold for the question/response).

In short, the explanation is more nuanced and specific than the quotation would suggest. In short (again, see after the fold for Carl’s entire comment), Carl believes that the time for equivocation had passed by mid-week. While “reliable liberals” has strategic opportunities for strengthening this legislation in the years, months, weeks leading up to the vote, by not being an assured vote early by mid-week, this helped foster deal-making with more conservative members, who sought weakening measures, rather than providing a stronger negotiating position by the bill’s managers.

I am uncertain about whether I agree with Carl. (I’d state that I disagree but he has far more experience in ‘last-minute deal-making’ than I, thus likely a more knowledgeable and nuanced perception of the situation. But, as a counter-argument, for example, what might the impact have been if 50 “reliable liberals” had gone to the mat Friday morning requiring something specific, such as $5 billion more year for renewable energy deployment)?) But, Carl’s point really is a conversation about how to play an end-game, about implications of tactical maneuvering, rather than what could (depending on one’s reading of the Huffington Post piece) be read as a strong condemnation of the role of “reliable liberals” throughout the ACES Act process.

A question and answer:

My question (with citing the HuffPost piece):

Q: Carl, Is it accurate that you are stating that the bill has been weakened because “liberals” did not support Waxman-Markey enough?

Carl’s response: I’d like to speak in my own words, competely, because efforts by others to excerpt and reframe what I am saying have produced a complete muddle.

This is all about leverage and timing.

At the beginning of any particular legislative process, leverage flows to those who lay out big, alternative visions, and who, in the words of my friends at Move-On, create progressive space.

Next there is a time to lay out bright lines, to deny our opponents access to reactionary space.

At that moment we have defined the game, and time comes to play it.

This  is the tactical,  transactional period — the ugle, sausage making horse-trading process.

And there comes a moment to seal the gains you have made — or pull the plug.  The end game

By Wednesday of this week, we had, in my view, reached the fend game.  It was valid to be for, or against.  (We were for.) But  for progressive  members of the House, sitting on the fence was no longer strategic.  Uncertainty about where the votes were actually helped Colin Peterson, not Friends of the Earth.

I urged progessives to hold out for more earlier in the process. Starting Wednesday I urged them to put the bill over the top — I thought we had gained all we could.

None of this is about blaming anyone — or giving anyone a pass —  for the compromises made to this bill — those compromises reflect the objective political reality that flows from particular strategies and particular moments.  We may well want different strategies going forward — but we also need a different public climate and framing.

And we — including me — should all try to resist the temptation to play “gotcha” with each other because we are disappointed.

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Tags: cap and trade · Congress

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Matt Dernoga // Jun 30, 2009 at 11:19 am

    I had it expressed to me by a friend in the progressive community working on this bill that they were very frustrated with progressives in general for not coming out in force for the bill. Much of the progressive community was focused on the healthcare debate, or tuned out because the bill was cap-and-trade.

    You’re right the real blame lies in the polluters and the deniers. However as a college climate activist accustomed to progressive groups on campus working real well together to achieve victories, this was the first time I’d witnessed first-hand the inability of the environmental groups and progressive community to unite on the national level on a very crucial piece of legislation. There might not be anyone in particular to blame, but we really didn’t do ourselves any favors by being all over the place on this bill. If this repeats in the Senate we’re in trouble.

  • 2 A Siegel // Jun 30, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    There is a general ‘do something’ drive among ‘progressives’ re climate change but agreement starts to erode as details come out. (‘Devil is in the details’ …)

    The “progressive” community did not engage, aggressively, with development of the bill. There was a perception, among many, that it was ‘safe’ since both Waxman and Markey are so strong. And, a perception that they were working with “Green Groups”, thus it was safe to leave it with the experts. I would suggest that both perceptions were wrong ones to be working with.

    Health care the lines are much easier to draw — public option or no public option; single payer or insurance companies; etc … Pretty easy to capture core points with just a few words. Not necessarily so with climate legislation, once one gets past 80 by 2050 (and, then, is is 80 from 2005 levels or 80 from 1990 … offsets, yes/no … 100% auction or some allocations … etc …)