The Trump reelection campaign likely never imagined that a potential 2020 opponent would practically gift-wrap a made-for-TV negative ad on climate change during a Democratic primary debate -- much less one held in the fossil fuel-reliant Motor City.
But the morning after the second Democratic debate in Detroit, top Trump strategists were celebrating, declaring early victory in Michigan, Pennsylvania and other areas in the Midwest even though the campaign finish line is still 15 months down the road.
Democratic front-runner Joe Biden’s blanket statement that he would end Americans’ use of fossil fuels if elected president amounted to political suicide in parts of the Rust Belt where coal remains king when it comes to jobs and workers’ economic security, the Trump campaign argued.
“If you want to be the Democrat nominee, you have to swear by the radical Green New Deal, which Joe Biden has done,” Trump Communications Director Tim Murtaugh told RealClearPolitics. “He’s ruled out fossil fuels, which would devastate coal-producing states like Pennsylvania and kill countless jobs across the country, not to mention job losses for workers in natural gas and oil.”
Murtaugh accused Biden of displaying an “appalling lack of concern for auto and manufacturing industries” and related energy enterprises by signing on to the far left’s answer to climate change so early in the campaign.
“The economic catastrophe that would result from Biden’s radical position is hard to overstate,” he said. “We don’t know who President Trump’s opponent will be, but Joe Biden just said goodbye to auto and manufacturing workers, Pennsylvania and the Midwest.”
Trump Campaign Manager Brad Parscale was downright gleeful as he seized on the moment to taunt Team Biden during the debate Wednesday night.
“Bye bye coal, Democrats & @JoeBiden just said they are done with you. How do you feel about that Pennsylvania?”
Biden’s commitment to ending Americans’ use of fossil fuels in cars, planes and rapid transit came during a clash with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who lambasted him for only offering “middle-ground” solutions to global warming.
Biden responded by touting sweeping aspects of his own environmental plan.
To clarify, CNN’s Dana Bash followed up: “Would there be any place for fossil fuels, including coal and fracking, in a Biden administration?”
Perhaps Biden, who has billed himself as the blue-collar anti-Trump, answered too swiftly, because Twitter lit up following this reply: “No. We would work it out. We would make sure it’s eliminated, and no more subsidies for either one of those, period.”
The Trump war room quickly tweeted out a video clip of that answer, arguing it amounted to an unqualified death knell for fossil-fuel jobs that will haunt Biden if he makes it to the general election.
“Joe Biden promises to kill the job of every American who works with fossil fuels,” the campaign declared.
As of Thursday morning, Biden had yet to extend and revise his remarks and appeared to be letting the Trump campaign sound the alarm unchallenged. But his actual climate plan, which he released in June, doesn’t go as far as his comments Wednesday night implied.
Instead, it would create new tax incentives for coal and natural gas plants to use new carbon-capture technology on coal as a path to achieving his 100% clean energy goal and net-zero emissions by 2050.
The plan also says that “he will demand” that Congress enact legislation in the first year of his presidency that “establishes an enforcement mechanism that includes milestone targets no later than the end of his first term in 2025.”
It makes a federal investment of $1.7 trillion over the next 10 years, which he plans to invest in clean energy jobs and training. That, coupled with additional private sector and state and local investments, would total more than $5 trillion in funding.
The Biden campaign did not respond to an RCP inquiry.
Even though the former vice president referenced his intention to end federal subsidies of coal and fracking just after his remark about banning fossil fuels, his choice of the word “eliminated” left little wiggle room for massaging and clarifying the next day.
When Biden made those remarks he was being pressed by Inslee, who has made climate change his signature issue and was blasting Biden’s approach.
“Look, these deadlines are set by science,” Inslee said, looking Biden in the eye. “Mr. Vice President, your argument is not with me, it’s with science. And unfortunately, your plan is just too late. The science says we have to get off coal in 10 years. Your plan does not do that. …
“I’ve heard you say that we need a realistic plan,” Inslee continued. “Survival is realistic, and that’s the kind of plan I have.”
Biden interjected — “I didn’t say that” — and then rattled off a laundry list of his plan’s highlights.
He said his proposal calls for 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations, with the goal of the country transitioning to all electric vehicles by 2030. It also makes a $400 billion investment in research, infrastructure, and clean tech, a doubling of offshore wind power, as well as ending fossil fuel subsidies, although he didn’t provide a hard timeline for that rollback to occur.
Biden said he shares progressives’ commitment to move quickly to address the threats climate change poses, noting that he was the only one onstage to help broker the Paris climate accord.
But, he said, “we have to engage the world while we’re doing it. We have to walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Sen. Cory Booker saw an opening and took it.
“No one should get applause for rejoining the Paris climate accord,” Booker remarked. “That is kindergarten.”
At one point in the debate, businessman Andrew Yang called on Americans to literally seek higher ground because climate change would raise sea levels and stir up more violent storms and tsunamis.
Inslee used his debate time to cast the issue as a dire, immediate existential threat, not just one that will impact the world inherited by voters’ grandchildren.
“We cannot ‘work it out,’” he said, referring to Biden’s effort to moderate his climate change comments.
“The time is up. Our house is on fire. We have to stop using coal in 10 years, and we need a president to do it or it won’t get done. Get off coal. Save this country and this planet,” he urged.
Philip Wegmann contributed to this report.