It’s a truisim that on the presidential campaign trail, policy pragmatism takes a permanent back seat to candidate positioning and differentiation. And that’s been particularly true of John Edwards, who’s made a big deal out of his “fighting progressive” credentials and his contempt for the kind of legislative compromises–especially those that reach across party boundaries–that he describes as endemic to a “corrupt” Washington establishment
That’s why a sudden moment of silence from Edwards on climate change legislation in the last couple of weeks has been especially significant.
In a column in this week’s issue of Time, Eric Pooley explains:
You can tell when the politicians are getting serious about an issue: they stop taking cheap shots at one another and suddenly become pragmatic. Amazingly, that’s happening right now on global warming. Just as the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns of “abrupt and irreversible” damage if we don’t take immediate action, a serious piece of climate legislation is beginning to pick up speed in the U.S. Senate.
Sens. Joe Lieberman and John Warner are sponsoring a bill to create a cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to below 1990 levels over the next 43 years. They’re calling the legislation America’s Climate Security Act, and it is expected to make it to the Senate floor soon.
Environmentalists have been split on this legislation, a somewhat watered-down version of cap-and-trade proposals that Lieberman earlier sponsored with John McCain. Some activists think it doesn’t cap emissions at a low enough level, while others are upset that the bill gives away too many pollution “allowances” instead of auctioning them. Until quite recently, Edwards was firmly in the negative camp, calling the bill “corporate welfare” and publicly challenging other candidates, most notably Hillary Clinton, to oppose it.
Before Thanksgiving, at an environmental forum, Edwards had the perfect opportunity to ratchet up the pressure on this issue and use it to reinforce his general attack on HRC as a “corporate Democrat” and an equivocator. But as Pooley notes:
Edwards decided not to take that swing. He didn’t attack Clinton or the bill. Why not? Because the politics of climate change are moving so fast and in such a pragmatic direction that he didn’t want to get caught out. His campaign had been hearing from key environmental groups, says an Edwards adviser, “and the consensus was that they don’t want to trash this bill. They want to strengthen it, not kill it.”
Edwards is running for his life at this point. He has to take down Hillary Clinton if he has any chance of winning the presidency. Here’s an issue that fits those themes perfectly, and he let it pass him by.
Tactically, that might seem like a mistake. But on a higher level, it is significant. Throughout this Democratic nominating process, John Edwards has been the candidate driving the public policy debate. No one was talking about poverty until Edwards made it a campaign issue. He was the first candidate to release a detailed plan to provide universal health care. He’s made bold calls for climate change legislation in this campaign before.
This move, though, represents a different kind of leadership. The possibility of a Democratic presidency is still more than a year away, and action on climate change is urgent. It’s to Edwards’ credit that he understand this is one issue on which the perfect should not become the enemy of the good.