CNN's Climate Debate Hurts the Democrats It Tried to Help
AP Photo/Matt Rourke
CNN's Climate Debate Hurts the Democrats It Tried to Help
AP Photo/Matt Rourke
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CNN’s climate “townhall” was meant to promote Democrats, showcasing an issue dear to the hearts of the party’s liberal base and the 2020 presidential field. The candidates were delighted to join. It gave them a chance to show they are truly green, care as deeply as the activists, and intend to act decisively. They stopped just short of demanding we all walk to work and heat our homes with Sterno cans.

The candidates signaled their virtue with evangelical fervor. It was reminiscent of an old-fashioned revival, this one for a new secular religion. One by one, the top-tier contenders vowed to spend vast amounts of taxpayer money, kill millions of jobs, and impose sweeping controls on the U.S. economy. It was a bidding war with somebody else’s money.

CNN’s amen chorus never bothered to ask three crucial questions. First, how can America pull off this ambitious agenda without breaking the federal budget and fundamentally changing the way we live? Second, if these proposals were implemented, how much would they actually reduce global warming? Most estimates show, unfortunately, that they would have little impact, far less than one degree on the thermometer over several decades. Third, how can this global problem be solved if China and India continue to fill the air with soot?

No candidate volunteered the answers, of course. Yet these unspoken questions raise fundamental problems for voters, including those concerned about the environment.

The session also raised questions pertaining to electoral politics. The debate revealed the Democrats’ Catch-22: The climate proposals that most appeal to elites are those that most repel rank-and-file voters, especially in the swing states of the upper Midwest.

The harder the primary fight, the worse the Catch-22. In a tough primary season, each candidate is forced to concentrate on winning the immediate battle. That fight is for the hearts and minds of primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina — as well as donors in Beverly Hills, Nob Hill, and Beacon Hill. The general election can wait. That’s true not just for climate change but for gun control, abortion, health care, and immigration — all issues on which the candidates have taken similarly strong progressive positions. Vital as those are for party activists, they will likely haunt the nominee in autumn 2020.

There have been a few outliers in the debates, and then only among the minor candidates. Andrew Yang is alone in wanting some role for nuclear fuel. Amy Klobuchar hasn’t backed the most extreme policies. Tim Ryan points out that some versions of “Medicare for All” would abrogate hard-won benefits of union contracts. More striking, though, is Joe Biden’s promise to abolish all carbon fuels over the next couple of decades. His program is less ambitious than his major rivals, but it would still cost trillions and demand major, compulsory changes for households and businesses. The conundrum is that these proposals undermine Biden’s central claim: his electability as a centrist.

The former vice president would never have veered left if his lead among Democrats was secure. It’s not. That’s also why he abandoned his long-held opposition to taxpayer funding for abortions (the Hyde Amendment), grounded, he always said, in his Catholic faith. Apparently, “Uncle Joe” reads the internal polls and adjusts his theology accordingly.

His rising competitor, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, is even more of a true believer. On climate change, Warren says she intends to issue an executive order on Day One of her presidency banning all fracking. This promise gets cheers on the stump, but hydraulic fracturing is the source of America’s current energy revolution, the reason why fuel is cheap, and the source of our country’s independence from Saudi, Iranian, and Venezuelan oil. Warren’s order is probably unconstitutional. But in modern Democratic Party politics, it’s the thought that counts.

That thought is to save us sinners and remake this fallen world. Praise the Lord and pass the regulations.

Even Bernie Sanders is singing from the same hymnal. Although he comes from a socialist tradition grounded in blue-collar jobs and working-class power, he has jettisoned that focus when it comes to climate change. Naturally, he says his proposals will create jobs and reduce energy costs.

The Democrats’ problem is not just that these proposals are unrealistic, unaffordable, and unpopular with the general public. It’s also that they are all on videotape, in the candidates’ own words, ready for Reelect the President ads in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Good luck flipping Texas blue after watching them.

That’s why CNN’s climate forum actually tripped up the candidates it was meant to help. It doesn’t matter that few Americans watched. It doesn’t matter that the moderators acted more like campaign cheerleaders than journalists

What matters is that Republicans recorded every second. They will use those clips to bind the eventual nominee to a hostage chair, to be flogged with a rubber hose. Note to Democrats: The hose and tape will be made from carbon.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at

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