Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide
Jul 26

Conducting a Post Mortem on the Climate Change Bill

It took all of about 45 seconds for the finger pointing to start.  Since Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced last week that the Senate would not take up a comprehensive climate change bill this year, the accusations have been flying fast, furious and often over the top (see Paul Krugman’s diatribe in the New York Times this morning).

For a quick read on the post-game analysis, Politico has a good article that outlines five different reasons why the bill failed:

1. The environmental movement was ineffective (the administration’s point of view).

2. The Obama administration didn’t give the issue enough attention or show enough leadership (the environmentalists’ point of view)

3. Key Senate Republicans, including Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.),  Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) changed their minds after the 2008 election and didn’t work with Democrats to get to a bill that would get 60 votes.

4. Key moderate Senate Democrats, such as Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), were never enthusiastic about the bill and didn’t engage.

5. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) misplayed their hand by insisting on a economy-wide solution that couldn’t get 60 votes until it was too late.

In the end, all are correct.  No one group was responsible for the end of the legislation.  But, it has been interesting to note some of the reactions from some leading bloggers on the topic.

On The New Republic’s environment blog, The Vine, Bradford Plummer asks four “what ifs?” that outline how the climate debate could have been different.  After examining these four scenarios, Plummer comes to the conclusion that, in the end, the Democrats in the Senate pursued the wrong strategy and should have more quickly changed course and embraced a more limited bill.

Plummer points to a story in Rolling Stone as a good example as any as to the arguments environmental groups are making (all of which coalesce around the  point Politico made above regarding the failure of the Obama administration to push sufficiently hard for the bill).  While Plummer thinks think that getting the Senate to 60 votes may have never been something President Obama could have made happen, he does believe that the criticisms being lobbed against the administration have merit.

In fact, the Rolling Stone article places the blame at the feet of both the Senate Democratic leadership, especially Majority Leader Reid, and the Obama administration.  It argues that both played into opponents’ hands by inviting business to sit at the backroom negotiating table and not pushing hard enough.  One key paragraph:

Indeed, the president has made no concrete demands of the Senate, preferring to let Majority Leader Harry Reid direct the bill – a hands-off approach that is unlikely to produce a measure of any substance. “You have two camps right now in the Senate,” says a top congressional source. “One is the camp of ‘Let’s put something together, put it out there, whip it really hard and get to 60.’ And then you have the Harry Reid model, which is ‘Let’s wait until we know we have 60 votes.’ ” Climate advocates are furious at the least-common-denominator approach, saying it takes victory off the table. “You can’t run up the white flag,” Sen. Jeff Merkeley of Oregon said in June, “until you have the fight.”

And another…

But the Obama administration let the opportunity [the BP oil spill] slip away. On June 15th, the president – a communicator whom even top Republican operatives rank above Reagan – sat at his desk to deliver his first address to the nation from the Oval Office. It was a terrible, teachable moment, one in which he could have connected the dots between the oil spewing into the Gulf and the planet-killing CO2 we spew every day into the atmosphere. But Obama never even mentioned the words “carbon” or “emissions” or “greenhouse” – not even the word “pollution.” The president’s sole mention of “climate” came in a glancing description of the “comprehensive energy and climate bill” that the House passed. In a moment that cried out for direction-setting from the nation’s chief executive, Obama brought no concrete ideas to the table. Restating the need to break our addiction to fossil fuels, he stared at the camera and confessed that “we don’t yet know precisely how we’re going to get there.” He didn’t challenge Americans to examine their own energy habits. He didn’t rally his fellow Democrats into a fight with the Republican Party of “Smokey” Joe Barton, the Texas Republican who later apologized to BP. Far from offering a clarion call for action, Obama said, meekly, that he would listen to give senators from both parties a “fair hearing in the months ahead.” Then he asked us to pray.

Finally, it is interesting to look at the comments of Tom Friedman’s favorite climate blogger, Joe Romm at Climate Progress (that’s not a slam, more professional jealousy).  Romm, in his July 23 post  title “The White House lamely blames environmentalists for climate bill failure,” lays the blame at the feat of moderate Democrats (separate from the leadership) and the Obama administration. His two key paragraphs:

On the  political front, the White House  deserves most of the blame for not getting Republicans.  Why?  Because  the White House never tried to keep moderate Democrats in line, never made  it clear that there was definitely gonna be a vote on this bill and the moderates should figure out what they needed to support the bill (as in the case of healthcare reform).

The WH thus enabled  nonstop public (and private) criticism and bitching about the bill from  a core group of moderate Democrats, which  not only became a self-fulfilling prophecy — that  getting the Democratic votes needed was impossible — it convinced Republicans that there was no possibility of getting anywhere near 60 and thus  no reason for them to stick their necks out.  That is,  it was always going to be harder for even a moderate Republican to support this bill than it was  for even relatively conservative Democrats.

To be sure, Romm does not believe that it was all the Democrats’ or environmentalists’ fault.  In an earlier post titled “The Failed Presidency of Barack Obama, Part 1,” he blames them for about 10 percent of the problem.  Of the remaining 90 percent of the blame, he gives 60 percent to Republicans and their industry allies and 30 percent to the media for giving them a platform.

So, who was to blame?  If I were a environmentalist, I’d put more of the blame at the feet of Harry Reid than the administration.  His strategy gave opponents of climate change legislation of plenty of room to operate.  However, they can’t blame him too much since they need him to win in November.

This is not the end of the debate.  Next up will likely be new regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency to move on the issue now that the Senate has failed to move.  However, this being Washington, those regulations are likely going to be challenged in court by industry or a legal group acting on behalf of industry.  Given the reputation of the court that will hear the case, there is a good change they will be thrown out.

This debate is far from over.  Stay tuned.

Sure, if you talk about any subject in a clumsy fashion you will turn people off — just look at how Obama and major progressive politicians managed to turn a winning political issue, health care reform, into an unpopular one!

Yes, much of the climate language that gets tested is truly lame.  But the fact that poor messaging fails is not an argument for not doing messaging on the subject at all!

What is especially lame I think is that many (but not all) progressives and environmentalists have stopped even talking about any of the basic environmental benefits of clean energy.  Here’s a simple message (to go with the energy independence and clean energy jobs pitch):   Strong action to reduce carbon pollution is crucial to preserving and improving clean air, clean water, and a livable climate for our children [emphasis his].  If you can’t even utter that basic sentence or something like it, you simply aren’t serious about explaining to the public why they need to put a price on carbon pollution.  “Global warming pollution” can also be interchanged with “carbon pollution.”  I tend to use both.  “Carbon” happens to be shorter and punchier, but then I devote a significant fraction of my talks to global warming.

So, who is right?  As Politico points out (as boring as it may seem), there are multiple reasons why climate change is dead for the year.  I can add two others — the “climategate” scandal that took the wind out of environmentalists’ sails for several months and the economy.  If I were a member of the environmentalist community, I would probably put much of the blame at the feet of Sen. Reid for the way he handled the negotiations among senators, but given they need Reid to keep his seat, they have muted much of their criticism of him.  I would also be blaming the Obama adminstration and would not be surprised if some of the more radical environmental groups turn on the Obama adminsitration in the 112th Congress.
However, I am not a member and think that that as helpful as the current howling coming the environmental community may be therapuetic, I think Romm nails it in saying they never got the messaging right and made a coherrent case for taking what will be painful steps for many.  As a result, as the unnamed adminstration official says in the Politico piece said, “They spent like $100 million and they weren’t able to get a single Republican convert on the bill.”
Of course, this isn’t the end of the debate.  As The Hill pointed out this morning, some progressive and environmental groups are happy the bill is dead and pledge to fight again next year (although I fail to see how it will be easier to win if the Republicans improve their hand, as expected, in November).  Others expect the next fight to be over the expected regulations to come from the Environmental Protection Agency.  That is certainly true, but like every other set of regulations to come out of Washington, expect these to be challenged in court.  This  will not end the uncertainty that many in business hate and given the reputation of the court that will hear the challenge, there is a good chance that the regulations would be tossed.  Finally, play close attention to the vote on Proposition 23, the ballot initiative that would gut California’s tough  climate change laws known by the shorthand AB 32 (the orginal bill number).  If that resolution wins, then the environmental movement will be in more trouble than they think.
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