A few weeks ago, out of the blue, Gov. Jay Inslee got just the kind of gift that can jump-start even the most flagging campaign.
It came wrapped in a tweet.
“Jay Inslee’s climate plan is the most serious + comprehensive one to address our crisis in the 2020 field,” wrote Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York congress member and Democratic socialist, before check-marking all the ways Inslee had lapped the 24-candidate presidential field.
Ocasio-Cortez, aka AOC, is not just any ally. She’s got 4.3 million Twitter followers, 70 times more than Inslee’s presidential campaign. She draws bigger crowds than most of the gazillion Democrats running for the nation’s top job. And she upset a Democratic establishment leader last year in part by going as green as anyone ever had against climate change.
And yet … it stubbornly hasn’t made a blip. Polls continue to be released in which Inslee lacks the support of even one respondent. The latest, out this past week by Morning Consult, found Inslee to be one of only three candidates stuck at 0% both nationally and in all the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.
Is it Jay? Or is it maybe … climate change.
“It’s climate change,” says UW political-science professor Mark Smith. “I think he picked the issue where there’s by far the biggest gap between the activists in the field, and how they feel, versus the mass public. For the mass public it’s an abstract issue, it’s scientific, it’s long-range. It’s not yet a voting issue.”
Smith said Inslee’s problem can be summed up by a line the “yellow vest” protesters used about a carbon tax this year in France: “You’re worried about the end of the world, we’re worried about the end of the month.”
Both pollsters and sociologists have studied, often anxiously, why such an existential problem can’t get traction with the voting public. It isn’t because people doubt it’s real. A team at Yale that’s been tracking attitudes on climate change for more than a decade found in May that the shares who say global warming is real (70%) and caused mostly by humans (55%) are both at or near all-time highs.
Liberals were found to be extra fired up about it. The environment and global warming have shot up to become the No. 2 and 3 issues in this election for the left, after only health care. For conservatives, global warming ranks dead last, out of 29 issues named.
But even as a science issue is morphing into a cultural one, most of the candidates at the top of the climate-policy rankings are, like Inslee, also-rans in these early polls.
Nathaniel Rich, author of the book “Losing Earth” about the climate-change wars, says the problem may be that the “appeal to reason” approach attempted for decades on climate clearly isn’t working in politics anymore, if it ever did (he was in Seattle recently for a talk at Town Hall).
“When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says ‘if we don’t act we’ll have blood on our hands,’ that’s a different argument” than we’ve heard, he said. “It’s more urgent. It’s more personal. It has a chance to be more politically effective.”
That is sad but likely true. I would note that in the poll, the No. 1 issue for conservatives, far ahead of health care, climate or any of the biggest challenges facing America, is border security. Demagoguery works.
Smith, the UW professor, says polls showing rising concern about climate change aren’t wrong, but they are deceiving. Because in the hearts and minds of liberals, there’s a monster loose on the land more alarming than global warming.
“That’s Trump himself,” Smith said.
Yep. Inslee had another seemingly strong campaigning day in May, out in Iowa, when he bashed front-runner Joe Biden for not having any climate ideas. It drew Inslee more national press attention.
But Biden simply responded with this: “The first, most important plank in my climate proposal is, beat Trump. Beat Trump, beat Trump.”
That sounds like it’s the first three planks. It also suggests a possible epitaph coming for Inslee’s campaign: He was well-meaning. He may even have been right. But he was after the wrong monster.