Ambition and success are not often punished

AMBITION AND SUCCESS ARE NOT OFTEN PUNISHED…. Today, a tri-partisan climate/energy bill was supposed to be unveiled after months of efforts. The package — crafted by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) — faced an uphill climb, but the legwork had been done, and it stood a fighting chance of passage.

Late Saturday, Lindsey Graham signaled his intention to walk away. As he explained it, Democratic leaders seem more interested in tackling immigration before climate — instead of the other way around, as he’d been led to believe — so he’s inclined to kill both efforts.

Joe Klein argued yesterday that Graham has done Democrats “a big favor.” When I saw the headline, I thought Klein may have identified some other way to get the bills passed without Graham’s support. But Klein was actually arguing the opposite — Graham’s doing Dems a favor because he’s killing the legislation Dems want to pass.

Lindsey Graham effectively killed the Senate’s looming cap-and-trade package by yanking his support from the bill — and thereby did the Democrats a favor. I’m all in favor of combating global warming, although I think a straight-ahead carbon tax (refundable in the form of reduced payroll taxes) would do the job far more efficiently than cap-and-trade. But if I’m a Democratic strategist, I’m thinking Augustinian thoughts: Lord, make me energy independent, but not just yet.

Why? Because the public has had quite enough, thank you, of government activism this year … and, after Wall Street reform is passed, any further attempts to pass major legislation will add to legitimate conservative arguments that the federal government is attempting to do [too] much to do any of it well…. [P]ublic skepticism about the Democratic Party is bound to increase if another humongous piece of legislation, which effectively guarantees higher energy prices, is passed this year.

I see the political landscape much differently. For one thing, I’ve seen no evidence to suggest Americans want policymakers to stop having so many successes. This came up a bit last year — many pundits insisted that President Obama was doing “too much, too fast” — but it was never borne out by the polls. I tend to think the electorate will be more impressed by Democratic successes than by relative inaction over the six months preceding the midterm elections.

Put it this way: when was the last time a party was punished by voters for successfully passing too much of its policy agenda, and fulfilling too many of its campaign promises?

For another, to characterize the climate/energy bill as “effectively guaranteeing higher energy prices” isn’t entirely fair — with various incentives and tax credits, most consumers wouldn’t see a price increase, and many would actually see their energy bills drop.

But perhaps most importantly, I think Klein underestimates what the lawmaking process will be like in 2011 and 2012. He wants to see bills on climate and immigration pass — and so do I — but Klein seems to believe policymakers can just pick this up again in the next Congress.

That’s almost certainly not the case. In the Senate, the Democratic majority is poised to shrink quite a bit, making it nearly impossible to overcome Republican filibusters. In the House, the Democratic majority may very well disappear entirely, and a GOP-led House will immediately ignore every policy request made by the administration.

It’s why I think Klein has it backwards — those who want to see progress on climate and immigration have to act quickly, because this is likely the last chance policymakers will have on either effort for quite a while.