You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Last month, Reuters reported that Joe Biden was preparing a “middle ground” climate policy — one that would ostensibly strike a balance between keeping Earth habitable and appealing to “the blue-collar voters who elected Donald Trump.”
This description called to mind some ungodly package of half-hearted gestures and full-throated panders, renewed fuel-efficiency standards for some and fracking subsidies for others. The left lampooned Biden’s delusional pragmatism. “We have got to make it clear that when the future of the planet is at stake, there is no ‘middle ground,’” Bernie Sanders said at a recent rally in California.
But when Biden’s climate plan finally dropped on Tuesday morning, progressives rapidly warmed to it. The Democratic front-runner’s 22-page proposal explicitly endorses “the Green New Deal framework,” arguing that the U.S. “urgently needs to embrace greater ambition on an epic scale” to meet the climate challenge and that “our environment and our economy are completely and totally connected.”
The campaign’s agenda largely puts policy where its rhetoric is. Biden calls for $1.7 trillion in direct federal investments in renewables, energy-efficient infrastructure, and research and development on a wide range of “moon shot” green technologies, among other projects. That represents a slightly bigger outlay than Beto O’Rourke proposed in his climate plan and only slightly less than Elizabeth Warren demands in her newly released proposal.
What’s more, the former vice-president pledges to put the U.S. on a path to net-zero emissions by 2050 through the establishment of an “enforcement mechanism” (ostensibly, some kind of carbon tax) that would ratchet up until domestic emissions are consistent with the 2050 goal. The third pillar of Biden’s plan consists of a variety of hazily defined measures for reducing the carbon footprint of America’s agriculture, transportation, and housing systems. That last bit is especially heartening: There are few simpler ways to reduce carbon emissions than to increase the percentage of the population living in multifamily housing in urban centers with quality public transportation. And there are few simpler ways to do it than tackling restrictive zoning. It’s unclear exactly how Biden intends to use federal power to shape local zoning decisions, but the Democratic Party’s centrist candidate’s willingness to make “mitigating the climate impact of urban sprawl” a bullet point in his agenda is encouraging, given how much hell the right has raised over “Agenda 21” over the years. Biden’s forthright endorsement of urbanization is a sign that moderate Democrats are a bit less terrified of the right than they used to be.
Finally, Biden affirms the Green New Deal’s marriage of progressive economic policy to sweeping climate reforms by promising to “defend workers’ rights to form unions and collectively bargain in these emerging and growing industries; pursue new partnerships with community colleges, unions, and the private sector to develop programs to train all of America’s workforce to tap into the growing clean-energy economy; incorporate skills training into infrastructure-investment planning by engaging state and local communities; and reinvigorate and repurpose AmeriCorps for sustainability so that every American can participate in the clean-energy economy.”
This may be a middle-ground plan, but if so, it’s the middle ground between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Michael Bennet, not the one between Susan Collins and Joe Manchin.
Which is to say: Biden’s proposal is at the outer edge of what an optimistic leftist could imagine Congress passing in the near-term future. And it pairs its legislative provisions with a long list of executive actions that a President Biden could pursue immediately after arriving in office.
Taken as a whole, Biden’s plan represents an enormous victory for the activists who put the Green New Deal onto the Democratic agenda. The former vice-president’s policy may be a heavily watered-down version of the ideal articulated by Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement, but it accepts their basic paradigm: major federal investments in renewable technology and infrastructure; integration of agricultural, urban, transportation, and labor policy into an overarching climate plan; large-scale government hiring; targeted investments in frontline communities; and a vaguely defined plan for coercing massive emissions reductions that avoids using the words carbon tax.
Sunrise didn’t let its distaste for Biden get in the way of acknowledging its win on Tuesday. “This is a major victory for the tens of thousands of people who have raised their voices, but we’re keeping up the pressure,” Varshini Prakash, the organization’s co-founder, told the Washington Post.
Some of the ways Biden’s vision departs from the left’s are actually (arguably) beneficent. Unlike some environmentalist groups, Biden does not shy away from endorsing investments in carbon capture and nuclear technology. Such measures may carry their own risks, but if the climate crisis is as severe as the United Nations suggests, we probably can’t afford to leave any tools on the shelf.
It is unclear whether Biden’s team had always intended to go relatively big on climate or whether it scrapped a more modest proposal after witnessing the backlash to the Reuters report. Regardless, there’s little reason to believe that Biden has a deep ideological commitment to Green New Deal–esque climate policies; just a decade ago, he favored expanding oil drilling on public lands.
But then, there isn’t much reason to believe Biden is an ideologue of any kind on most issues of public policy. During his half-century in American politics, Biden has displayed a passion for triangulation and, in so doing, made himself complicit in a wide variety of odious policies. But he’s always been more of an unscrupulous opportunist than a principled centrist. Biden was for busing to desegregate America’s schools until his constituents were against it. He attacked Republicans for pushing tougher sentences for nonviolent offenders until he decided that tough-on-crime liberalism was good politics — at which point, he made the expansion of mandatory minimum sentencing a personal cause. When the Christian right was ascendent, Biden indulged his Catholicism and voted as a conservative Democrat on abortion rights; now that “pro-life Democrat” is bordering on a contradiction in terms, he’s telling activists that he supports federal funding for abortion services. When marching with the civil-rights movement was personally inconvenient, Biden didn’t; when saying he marched with the civil-rights movement was politically convenient, he did.
By all accounts, Biden is no wonk or ideas man. He is a reasonably gifted retail politician who knows how to stick his finger into the wind. Progressives would be wrong to regard him as either an implacable enemy or a trustworthy ally. On most issues, it seems safe to assume that Biden’s position will reflect the balance of power within his coalition. In the state of Delaware, credit-card companies have far more clout than financially insecure consumers do. Thus, as a senator from that state, Biden voted accordingly. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, centrist and corporate forces were ascendant in the national Democratic Party, and Biden drifted rightward accordingly. Today progressive activists are capable of imposing a public-relations price on those who go small on climate — at least, in the context of a Democratic primary — so Biden has put together a climate agenda that would have been considered “far left” a few years ago.
None of this is to say that Biden has literally no earnest political convictions or that all of his decisions are mechanistically determined by political considerations. Any unified theory of any politician is bound to be reductive. But “Biden will go wherever the wind’s blowing” seems sound as a general rule for anticipating his actions.
On high-profile campaign issues like climate and health care, this is redounding to progressives’ benefit. Uncle Joe might not support Medicare for All, but his making a strong public option the right flank of the Democrats’ health-care debate is a massive win for advocates of universal coverage. But what happens when that campaign is won, much of the Resistance returns to brunch, and corporate lobbyists are the only powerful constituency watching? Will the Biden administration let Warren’s conscience be its guide on arcane issues of financial regulation? Or channel Sanders’s righteous indignation when Big Pharma asks it to use trade deals as a covert means of entrenching patent monopolies?
Not unless there’s a change in the political climate.