Ben Roback: Is the “Green New Deal” fantasy or 2020 reality for the Democrats?

It is hard to see a Democrat who opposes the legislation courting the Left of the party and winning the Presidential nomination.

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

In January, this column entertained the idea of whether or not a true progressive could win the presidency in 2020. A core feature of almost all Democratic candidates seeking their party’s nomination will be their support for a ‘Green New Deal’, the economic stimulus program designed to decarbonise the US and address economic inequality. It has been principally proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey, and subsequently become a feature of the early election campaign. It has also become a lightning rod for the youthful, progressive insurgency taking place within the Democratic Party around the country.

Are the economics and politics of the Green New Deal possible?

In February, Ocasio-Cortez and Markey introduced a Green New Deal resolution in Congress that lays out the principles and goals behind their policy proposals. It consists of five goals, 14 projects, and 15 requirements. One thing that is immediately clear is that it will require a Democrat in the White House in order to stand any chance of being enacted. Otherwise, it will face the same fate as the American Clean Energy and Security Act – the Democrats’ last attempt to forge a legislative path to address climate change, which passed the House of Representatives in 2009 but progressed no further.

The policy proposal is expected to heavily influence the Democratic Party, pushing its grass roots and 2020 hopefuls towards a more defined and aggressive plan to address climate change, but the impact on this administration’s legislative approach is likely to be negligible at best. President Trump continues to conflate weather with climate change, whilst appointing sceptics to review climate science. If anything, it could have the opposite effect – to push the White House even further to the right on climate change and decarbonisation, owing to the vehemence with which Republicans oppose Ocasio-Cortez’s plans for increased government spending. On that basis, the Green New Deal could become a legislative proxy for the battle that will take place in 2020. It sets up the election to be one between climate change deniers and climate change interventionists, in that climate change has now become a signifier of broader and deeper divisions in American society.

The Green New Deal builds on the principles outlined by President Franklin D Roosevelt, whose New Deal was launched to battle the effects of the Great Depression. The 2019 proposal focuses on reducing inequality, whilst aiming to eliminate US greenhouse gas pollution in a decade. In addition, it includes a job guarantee program “to assure a living wage job to every person who wants one”.

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the US still has a long way to go in its path to renewable energy. Currently, the US gets just 17 per cent of its power from renewable sources. If the Green New Deal ends up being little more than a motivator to push a future Democratic president in the direction of renewable domestic energy sources, it could start with markedly increasing that figure.

Voters will rightly demand to know how progressives intend to pay for these bold ideas. This could differ in the primary, where the Democratic base will seek ideological purity from their candidates, and the general, where the wider American public will be more concerned with pragmatism. For now, the architects of the Green New Deal have sought to largely avoid the question. It is good politics to float the ideas and consider how to pay for them later, but the economics of the proposal will not go away. In the same way that Jeremy Corbyn has pledged free university places, greater NHS funding and the best part of £500 billion in public spending and failed to answer how he would pay for it.

How will it shape the Republican response to climate change?

Given the Green New Deal is intrinsically linked to Ms Ocasio-Cortez, whom the Republicans and conservative media have grown to love opposing and mocking in the short period of time in which she has been a member of Congress, it is unlikely the GOP will support any version of a Green New Deal. Both in terms of the politics and the economics – it would invoke the kind of vast government spending the party rallies against, whilst also acknowledging the existence of climate change and the need for a government response to it.

On the campaign trail and now in the White House, Mr Trump has denied that emissions of greenhouses gases caused by human activity are warming the planet. Instead, he argues that climate change patterns are changing naturally, and in his more excessive moments laments a climate change “hoax” engineered by China to economically punish the United States. It is difficult to foresee a sudden reversal in those views.

The electoral trends might be the only thing capable of pushing Republicans into acting on climate change and reversing their current position. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in December 2018 found that 66 per cent of Americans now say they have seen enough evidence to justify action on climate change, up from 51% 20 years ago. Crucially, a gap appears between registered independents – 79 per cent of whom support action – and Republicans – 56 per cent of whom said that concern about climate change is unwarranted or that more research is necessary before taking action.

The path to a Green New Deal might not run through 2020

The Green New Deal as currently proposed has faced its own wave of criticism. Patrick Moore, the co-founder of Greenpeace, even went as far as describing it as “completely crazy”. It has been dismissed by the right as a would-be act of reckless big-state spending. Government spending is often embraced by the left – such as FDR’s New Deal, Truman’s Fair Deal and LBJ’s Great Society – but it is not alien to the right. If President Trump’s executive action on border security isn’t shot down by the courts, he will spend over $5 billion with the stroke of a pen.

The enthusiasm of first-term Democrats in the 116th Congress has made the Green New Deal a litmus test for the 2020 general election. Already, Democratic hopefuls like Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have expressed their support for the proposals. It is hard to see a Democrat who opposes the legislation courting the Left of the party and winning the 2020 nomination. For a Green New Deal to succeed, it may need a longer runway than the months between now and the November 2020 general election. It may also need more visible climate change crises in the areas that are most vulnerable, in order to pressure Republican politicians to shift their stance – like in Florida. It will certainly need a Democrat in the White House and their full endorsement.

AOC is right, we need unprecedented action to prevent climate catastrophe

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been US Representative for New York’s 14th District for less than two months, but she has already made waves in US politics so large that they have spread across the pond. Last week, Ocasio-Cortez (or AOC, as she is popularly known) tabled House Resolution 109. The “Green New Deal” it outlines would […]

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been US Representative for New York’s 14th District for less than two months, but she has already made waves in US politics so large that they have spread across the pond.

Last week, Ocasio-Cortez (or AOC, as she is popularly known) tabled House Resolution 109. The “Green New Deal” it outlines would transition the US to a carbon neutral economy and 100% renewable energy generation within ten years. These changes would be accompanied by massive investment in infrastructure, from improving the energy efficiency of buildings, to developing new transport links to reduce domestic air travel.

AOC is a self-described democratic socialist, so it is no surprise that this change is underpinned by economic policies some in our party would baulk at, notably a government jobs guarantee. The “Green New Deal” effectively posits the complete restructuring of the US economy. To call it radical would be an understatement. Yet on the issue which will define the next half century, she is bang on the money.

Because radical is what we need right now.

Last year’s publication of the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5˚C was simply the most high profile of numerous reports highlighting the sheer magnitude of the climate crisis we now face.

Between 1850 and 2011, the USA was responsible for 27% of all greenhouse emission – more than the whole of the EU combined – and it remains the second largest emitter today. It is welcome, then, that some in the US political elite are finally grasping the need to lead change on a massive scale.

Of course, we cannot rely on the US alone. The entire basis of the global economy needs to shift radically. Yet here in the UK all our political energy is being wasted on a vanity project of the far right. We are modern-day Neros, fiddling while Rome burns.

Commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement will not get us close to the necessary reduction. The UK’s Carbon Budget only requires a 57% reduction in emissions by 2030. In contrast, AOC has put forward a vision of change on the scale we need.

The “Green New Deal” may not be the preferred policy of the average Lib Dem, but it is an appropriate response to challenge we now face, and its success, even in part, would be a huge step forward. Like AOC, we should make the long-term survival of our planet a foundation for all policy we develop, from funding social care and investing in our infrastructure, to local devolution and housing. Anything else is futile.

On Friday, young people across the world staged a school strike for climate, following the action of Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. They, like AOC, have grasped the severity of the moment we face. As Thunberg put it; “I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

* Jack Fleming is a Liberal Democrat member and activist. He blogs at www.whateversleftblog.wordpress.com.

Ben Roback: Can a true progressive win the presidency in 2020?

Hopefuls should remember that what plays well in the primaries may be un-deliverable from the White House.

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Make no mistake, the 2020 presidential election campaign is well underway. At the latest count, over half a dozen Democrats have announced their intention to seek the party’s nomination and well over a dozen more could join the field in the coming weeks and months.

Building on the anger and passion that pushed the Democratic base to join the resistance and then turn out to vote in the midterms, the wide field of Democratic hopefuls is set to gravitate around a progressive left-wing agenda.

Pushing that leftward shift is the rising stars of the party, all of whom make no apology of their progressive and at times even socialist values. The nickname-only Democrats are the brightest lights in that group – namely “AOC” (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), “Beto” (Beto O’Rourke) and to a fading extent “Bernie” (Bernie Sanders).

The policy platforms put forward by those running in 2020 are, for the majority, unquestionably left-wing. The default proposal by anyone seeking the Democratic nomination has been Medicare for all and support for a ‘Green New Deal’. It is no surprise that the Obama-alumni hosts of Pod Save America described those two policies as the “secret password” that gets Democratic hopefuls into the race.

On the campaign trail then, we will hear an awful lot more about Medicare for all and the jobs boom associated with a Green New Deal. But just as Donald Trump found that it is easy to promise that he will build a wall and Mexico will pay for it at rallies, Democratic hopefuls might also find that their most progressive policies are dead on arrival on day one of a Democratic presidency.

Political kryptonite for the Republican Party, a Medicare for all bill has no chance of passing a GOP-controlled House or Senate. The proof? Before introducing legislation that would create a government-run, single-payer health care system in September 2017, Sanders said:

“Look, I have no illusions that under a Republican Senate and a very right-wing House and an extremely right-wing president of the United States, that suddenly we’re going to see a Medicare-for-all, single-payer passed. You’re not going to see it. That’s obvious.”

Moreover, the party structures on the left are yet to get behind some of these radical reforms. Tom Perez, Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman, regularly pivots to a broader answer about health care policy when asked whether he supports a single-payer plan. Nancy Pelosi, the House Majority Leader, was more direct earlier this year when she was asked whether Democrats should run on a single-payer platform in 2018, and said: “No. I say to people, ‘You want to do that, do it in your states.'”

All that is before we even consider the process required for such a fundamental overhaul. That’s why Vox wrote:

“Doing anything as big as Medicare-for-all would be difficult. Doing it while cancelling a large portion of the country’s current health insurance plans, even with a transition period, would be an undertaking with no precedent in the history of American social policy. It would require the categorical commitment of the next Democratic administration to get it done.”

Notwithstanding those legislative and political challenges, the left will be buoyed going into 2020 by polling that shows strong support for major policy overhauls. According to Reuters, 70 per cent of Americans support Medicare for all, including 85 per cent of Democrats and a staggering 52 per cent of Republicans.

Despite that gloomy picture, it is worth remembering historical examples of radical agendas being implemented in the face of political objection. Although there has been much commentary on the increasingly progressive economic policies favoured by the likes of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and the viability of their ideas in today’s political environment, it should be noted that Democrats have, in the past, been able to advance an interventionist agenda in the face of staunch right-wing opposition.

From Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, which laid the basis for modern day social security, to Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ which, among many other things, created Medicare, an advancement of left-wing social and economic policies is not a new phenomenon in US political life.

A wide-open race that could get wider

Polling continues to show that there is no clear Democratic frontrunner for 2020. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll  found that 56 per cent of Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents, when asked whom they would support for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, didn’t offer up any name at all. The starting gun has barely been fired and there are months for more hopefuls to throw their hats into the ring.

With an early flurry of announcements and the creation of exploratory committees, more ‘establishment’ candidates like Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg (whose candidacies are expected but not guaranteed) might keep their powder dry and wait to see the direction that the race takes before entering.

With Trump entering a new period of vulnerability and exposure on three major fronts – the shutdown, Mueller, and his approval ratings – the list of Democrats and left-leaning independents that think they can run against him and win is long and growing by the day. At the same time, the rising Democratic stars are pushing the party’s presidential hopefuls further and further to the left. The narrative that underpins 2020 Democratic candidates will therefore become increasingly progressive.

Politics is the art of the possible, not the art of the promise. Democratic hopefuls would do well to remember that what they promise in Iowa and New Hampshire is not necessarily compatible with what they can deliver in the White House. The President’s current self-inflicted problems are the perfect proof of that.

Sanders is a refreshing change from the careerists who infest American as well as British politics.

So though he presents himself as anti-Trump, he has something in common with him. And there could, astonishingly, be a future for socialism in America.

Where We Go From Here: Two Years in the Resistance by Bernie Sanders

Books by serving politicians in which they purport to describe their beliefs and vision of the future are seldom of any value. The author is in a rush, and imagines that words which elicit applause when spoken at a rally of the faithful can be transferred without further effort to the printed page.

Bernie Sanders, who ran for the Democratic nomination in 2016 and is contemplating another run in 2020, is as lazy a writer as the rest of them. His book reads at times like a parody: “I have said it a million times, but I think it bears repeating. The campaign that I ran for president was never about me.”

Here is another grave problem with the campaign book as a genre. It is all about me, but the candidate is anxious to demonstrate how ordinary and unassuming and decent he is, so he (or she, though still most often he, for this kind of vanity comes more easily to men than to women) advertises his homespun humility, while also reminding us at frequent intervals that he is morally superior to the other side.

Sanders dismisses Donald Trump as “the most dishonest and reactionary president in the history of the Republic”: a formula which makes one wonder how much American history he knows. But it is true that the really disgraceful presidents are often passed over in silent embarrassment by the historians.

And then we are into the campaign rhetoric:

“Our job, for the sake of our kids and grandchildren, is to bring our people together around a progressive agenda.

“Are the majority of people in our country deeply concerned about the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality that we are experiencing? You bet they are. Do they believe that our campaign finance system is corrupt and enables the rich to buy elections? Overwhelmingly so.

“Do they want to raise the minimum wage to a living wage and provide pay equity for women? Yes they do. Do they think the very rich and large corporations should pay more in taxes so that all of our kids can have free tuition at public colleges and universities? Yup. Do they believe that the United States should join every other major country and guarantee health care as a right? Yes, again. Do they believe climate change is real? You’ve got to be kidding.”

To dismiss this because of the style would be a mistake. In Britain, Conservatives thought it was sufficient to be contemptuous of Jeremy Corbyn, and failed to foresee that in the 2017 general election he would be rather good at persuading people to vote for a socialist.

In the United States, Sanders, who is eight years older than Corbyn, was likewise dismissed as an out-of-date Leftie whose socialism could have no popular appeal.

But Sanders was in many ways a more attractive candidate than Hillary Clinton, who inspired even in her most devoted supporters deep misgivings, and who managed to beat him only because she had the Democratic machine behind her.

Sanders actually appeared to believe what he was saying, for with eccentric obduracy, or if one prefers admirable independence of mind, he had stuck to it even for long periods when he might with advantage have modified his views.

It was obvious to most people that however much Clinton claimed to have the interests of the struggling poor at heart, she had come to feel more at home in the Hamptons.

She herself was beaten in 2008 by Barack Obama, a candidate with a better ear, and a more plausible claim to be in touch with the wider public. His campaign book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, is in a different league to Sanders’ effort.

And Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father, written ten years before he became well-known, so when he still had time to write a proper book, is better still.

In The Audacity of Hope, Obama describes a conversation he had over lunch in late September 2001 with a media consultant who was encouraging him to run for office:

“‘You realise, don’t you, that the political dynamics have changed,’ he said as he picked at his salad.

“‘What do you mean?’ I asked, knowing full well what he meant. We both looked down at the newspaper beside him. There, on the front page, was Osama bin Laden.

“‘Hell of a thing, isn’t it?’ he said, shaking his head. ‘Really bad luck. You can’t change your name, of course. Voters are suspicious of that kind of thing. Maybe if you were at the start of your career, you know, you could use a nickname or something. But now…’ His voice trailed off and he shrugged apologetically before signalling the waiter to bring us the check.”

As it happened, Obama with his strange name possessed the touch of implausibility which Americans sometimes warm to in a presidential candidate. So, in his unbelievably boorish way, did Trump.

For either of them to get to the White House was amazing, and in that sense a dream come true. They were outsiders who knew, in quite different ways, how to appeal to anti-Washington sentiment, which is generally the prevailing sentiment in the United States.

Clinton, as the wife of a former President and a woman who had come to enjoy the company of the rich, could not run an anti-Establishment campaign, and looked hypocritical when she pretended to do so.

Sanders is not open to that charge of hypocrisy. He genuinely believes that billionaires (his favourite target) should pay more tax, the pharmaceutical industry should charge less for essential medicines, assault rifles should not be on sale to the mentally ill, and they in turn should receive proper medical treatment at public expense rather than being incarcerated in America’s shamefully extensive prison system.

In this book, one starts to feel that Sanders, though not immune to the charge of senatorial self-importance (he has been one of Vermont’s senators since 2007, and was before that in the House of Representatives), is a refreshing change from the careerists who infest American as well as British politics.

The new and younger version of Sanders is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. According to Sanders,

“Progressive ideas are now mainstream in America. That’s what the people want, especially Democrats… When there is political excitement in the air, when ordinary people sense hope for the future, they will come out and vote, and Democrats will win. The simple truth is that ‘moderates’ or ‘centrists’ do not generate that level of excitement.”

We shall see. Lord Ashcroft has pointed out that a candidate who makes Democrat activists feel good might “drive uncommitted voters back into the arms of Donald Trump”.

But Trump is enough to give plutocracy a bad name, and Sanders here mounts a fierce attack on the in his view undeserving rich.

Once one has adjusted to his manner of speaking, one finds he is lucid and sincere in his account of where America has gone wrong and what a bad deal many hard-working Americans get. His opponents as well as his fans should pay attention.