The Weak Rollout of the Green New Deal
The “Green New Deal” congressional resolution from Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was introduced with such fanfare you might think it represented the Democratic Party’s official position on climate change. Its backers certainly wanted to give the impression the proposal has attracted enormous support within the party; Ocasio-Cortez swatted at critics by posting on Twitter, “When your #GreenNewDeal legislation is so strong that the GOP has to resort to circulating false versions, but the real one nets 70 House cosponsors on Day 1 and all Dem presidential candidates sign on anyway.”
She padded her numbers a bit. As of Feb. 9, the resolution has 65 co-sponsors from the House (not counting two non-voting representatives), as well as 11 from the Senate. Most of the announced presidential candidates, several of whom are in the Senate, have signed on, but some of the lesser known aspirants—including Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, former Rep. John Delaney, and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg—have not as of yet. Nor have two senators considering a run, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and Colorado’s Michael Bennet.
Regardless of these quibbles, do the actual sponsorship numbers prove how “strong” support is for the Green New Deal resolution? Actually, they prove the opposite. They reflect how the resolution has divided the Democratic Party, only garnering support from some on the left flank, while giving Republicans easy targets.
Only 28 percent of the House Democratic caucus and 23 percent of the Senate Democratic caucus are presently on board. Only 44 percent of the Congressional Progressive Caucus rushed to sign on. And of the newly elected House Democrats hailing from districts that Donald Trump won, the number backing the GND is precisely zero.
The fact the several presidential candidates are initially supportive doesn’t mean the plan is destined to be in the party platform; it’s only a reminder they are currently hustling for primary voters among the party’s progressive base, and not yet focused on the general election.
The sponsorship numbers may continue to grow, but considering the polarized reception the Green New Deal has received, you shouldn't expect many new backers from red and purple districts. It’s no wonder that Speaker Nancy Pelosi has kept her distance from the resolution, telling Politico it was merely “one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive,” and chiding those who have jumped on the bandwagon based on the title alone: “The green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”
Even after the introduction, nobody knows exactly what it is. What has been put forth is only a resolution calling on Congress to draft Green New Deal legislation, not detailed legislation itself. The resolution calls for “meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources,” to be “accomplished through a 10-year national mobilization,” but it doesn’t offer much of a plan to accomplish it, let alone grapple with all of the obstacles and ramifications of a radical transformation of the American economy over a breakneck timeline. On top of its energy goals, the resolution would “require” providing all Americans with “high-quality health care,” “affordable, safe, and adequate housing” and “economic security,” but makes no attempt to explain how to accomplish any of that.
Further adding to the confusion, and handing political ammunition to Republicans, was an amateurish fact sheet briefly posted on Ocasio-Cortez’s website that suggested the proposal would include additional ambitious measures, such as a universal basic income for all Americans. The document was taken down from the site, and dismissed by the congresswoman as a “draft” not intended for distribution.
Some have suggested the sheer audacity of the plan is more important than the policy details or its immediate legislative prospects, because it will move the so-called “Overton Window”: By expanding the bounds of political discourse, the Green New Deal will make other climate proposals appear more moderate than they do today and improve their prospects for passage.
But at least one of the chief policy architects of the resolution isn’t looking to make other proposals look good; he’s trying to make other Democrats look bad. Sean McElwee of Data for Progress told Vox that the Green New Deal is intended to be a new litmus test: “The Green New Deal is what it means to be progressive. … By definition that means politicians who don’t support those goals aren’t progressive. We need to hold that line. Get on the GND train or choo-choo, motherf-----, we’re going to go right past you.”
In other words, the fact that the Green New Deal divides the Democratic Party is a feature, not a bug. It is designed smoke out anyone who isn’t “progressive” by the standards set by McElwee and his allies.
That may be useful if your project is the ideological purification of the Democratic Party. But if your primary goal is to pass legislation that would help solve the climate crisis, you shouldn’t be trying to shrink your own party. You should be working on building a broad coalition that can get legislation through Congress and on a president’s desk.
Green New Deal supporters aren’t reaching across the aisle because they don’t believe broad coalitions are possible. Bipartisanship is assumed to be a lost cause, and Democratic moderates are considered as useless as Republicans. Once Democrats take back the Senate, they want the legislative filibuster abolished, so the GND can get passed with a slim majority. “Green New Deal will never happen while the filibuster lives,” said Ezra Levin of the progressive activist group Indivisible.
This is dangerously defeatist logic. Set aside the fact that it is far from a given that Democrats would junk the filibuster upon claiming the Senate, as there are still plenty of moderates and institutionalists in the Senate Democratic caucus. Even if they did, and passed a Green New Deal package thereafter, it probably wouldn’t last long, because eventually the political pendulum would swing and Republicans would repeal it at their first opportunity. Look at a country without a filibuster: Australia. In 2012, the progressive Labor Party government implemented a carbon tax to tackle climate change. But backlash was so fierce that the conservative Liberal Party was swept into a power in 2013, and the tax was easily repealed in 2014.
Building a broad coalition behind a politically sustainable climate protection policy is tough enough. Piling on a populist-socialist wish list, including the end of the legislative filibuster, makes it impossible.
Pelosi and many other Democrats in Congress appear to grasp that political reality, which is why the initial level of support for the Green New Deal in Congress was not strong. But for the planet’s sake, let’s hope the resolution’s rocky rollout will make future Democratic climate proposals appear more moderate, and open the possibility of a bipartisan breakthrough.