Fear of Fox and the death of a climate bill

FEAR OF FOX AND THE DEATH OF A CLIMATE BILL…. If you haven’t already read Ryan Lizza’s monster piece on the life and death of the Senate’s climate/energy bill, it’s well worth checking out. It’s a detailed look at the biggest legislative setback of the last two years, and the various mistakes and missteps that led to its demise.

I’ve seen some suggest that it casts the Obama White House in an especially bad light, and it’s true that Lizza highlights some strategic and policy errors that the president’s team made, none of which helped the process along. But the key takeaway from the article, at least for me, was that the tri-partisan package was destined for failure, regardless of any other consideration, unless four to six Senate Republicans were prepared to get on board.

Which means the package was destined for failure.

The Senate bill was shaped by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), giving it the “KGL” moniker, and Lizza explains Graham’s role in the process in some detail. We learn, for example, that the South Carolinian reveled in his role as the Senate’s “new GOP maverick,” and that Graham’s relationship with John McCain strained as McCain grew increasingly bitter, jealous, and antagonistic about Graham’s willingness to be constructive.

Other Republican colleagues taunted Graham. “Hey, Lindsey,” they would ask, “how many times have you talked to Rahm today?,” and the criticisms in South Carolina became more intense. But Graham gave every indication to Lieberman and Kerry that he could deal with the pressure. He wasn’t up for re-election until 2014, and his conversations with them, and with Krupp, the White House, and the Manhattan environmentalists, seemed to be having an impact.

At a climate-change conference in South Carolina on January 5, 2010, Graham started to sound a little like Al Gore. “I have come to conclude that greenhouse gases and carbon pollution” are “not a good thing,” Graham said. He insisted that nobody could convince him that “all the cars and trucks and plants that have been in existence since the Industrial Revolution, spewing out carbon day in and day out,” could be “a good thing for your children and the future of the planet.” Environmentalists swooned. “Graham was the most inspirational part of that triumvirate throughout the fall and winter,” Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, said. “He was advocating for strong action on climate change from an ethical and a moral perspective.”

But, back in Washington, Graham warned Lieberman and Kerry that they needed to get as far as they could in negotiating the bill “before Fox News got wind of the fact that this was a serious process,” one of the people involved in the negotiations said. “He would say, ‘The second they focus on us, it’s gonna be all cap-and-tax all the time, and it’s gonna become just a disaster for me on the airwaves. We have to move this along as quickly as possible.’ “

Think about that for a moment. The fate of the legislation — and the fate of our efforts to combat a climate crisis — was dependent on a cable news network not focusing too much attention on legislative negotiations. Graham was apparently willing to do some heavy lifting, just so long as Fox News’ attention was focused elsewhere.

With that in mind, those inclined to blame President Obama for the demise of the bill are overlooking the relevant details here. As Graham saw it, Fox News would have made it impossible for Republicans to go along with the tri-partisan package, and without GOP support, the legislation would be killed.

That’s what it takes to govern in the 21st century — quick and quiet negotiations, motivated by fear of a cable news network. David Frum’s quote from last year continues to ring true: “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox.”

As a consequence, any hopes of making meaningful progress on preventing a global catastrophe will, barring a midterm miracle, be delayed until 2013 at the earliest.