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If Obama Looks to Sen. Bennet for Winning Strategy, He Needs to Make a Major Issue of Global Warming and Clean Energy

By Joe Romm

"If Obama Looks to Sen. Bennet for Winning Strategy, He Needs to Make a Major Issue of Global Warming and Clean Energy"

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That’s the big AP story that HuffPost linked to from its screaming banner front-page headline yesterday (see below).

Significantly, the story doesn’t mention how Sen. Bennet (D-CO) used his opponent Ken Buck’s global warming denial to help win the eco-conscious state (see “Did Ken Buck’s global warming denial cost the Tea Party favorite a Senate seat? and below).  The story opens:

DENVER — If you want a sense of how President Barack Obama’s team intends to win in the West, look no further than Democrat Michael Bennet’s successful fight to retain his Colorado Senate seat last year.

Bennet, who was appointed in 2009, captured a full term in a tough year for Democrats by turning the campaign into a “choice,” not a referendum, on his brief time in the Senate.

He portrayed his opponent, Republican Ken Buck, as out of step with state voters. He used strong fundraising to blanket the airwaves and build a large campaign organization to turn out Hispanics, young voters and women squeezed by the economic downturn.

Obama’s team has studied that model, and party leaders say the senator’s campaign could serve as a template for Obama in other competitive Western states next year.

We’ll see.

One way that Buck was out of step with Colorado voters is that the voters care about global warming and clean energy, whereas Tea Party extremist Buck did not, as The Hill reported at the time:

As I discussed in a November post, Bennet clearly and deftly played the global warming card — which recent public opinion research and electoral analysis suggests is a winning strategy (see Bombshell: Democrats Taking “Green” Positions on Climate Change “Won Much More Often” Than Those Remaining Silent).  Here’s some background on what happened in Colorado:

In only two Senate races did a candidate’s position on global warming become a major issue.  In those two Senate races, the candidate that stood with the Senate’s top global warming denier and embraced denial of basic scientific reality lost.

The first was Carly Fiorina (see After Inhofe’s endorsement, Carly Fiorina challenges climate science — unlike the company she once ran! and Politico on CA Senate debate: “Fiorina’s major stumble came on the issue of Proposition 23″).  She was crushed by climate hawk Barbara Boxer

Before the election, on October 21st 2010, Ken Buck embraced Inhofe: “Global warming is the greatest hoax” — and, as the clip above makes clear, Bennet attacked immediately.

Bennet had always been trailing in the polls, which began slowly tightening in early October, but Buck was still up by 2 points on October 21, according to Nate Silver’s polling analysis model.

When Buck embraced Inhofe and denial, Bennet pounced:

“Ken Buck’s extreme stance on climate change is a threat to Colorado’s economy and could prove cataclysmic for our national security,” said Bennet spokesman Trevor Kincaid in a statement. Kincaid noted the Pentagon’s view that climate change is a security issue.

Michael Bennet believes that climate change is real, and that we need to grow our economy by embracing clean energy alternatives, like solar, wind, and other renewable sources of energy. Michael believes that Colorado is uniquely positioned to lead the world in the new energy economy,” Bennet’s campaign said.

At the same time, Colorado scientists rebuked Buck, and the media covered it (see “Ken Buck would let climate change ruin Colorado and unilaterally disarm its clean energy leadership“).  Of course, Colorado is home to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and many clean energy companies.

By election night, Bennet beat the final polls and won by about one percentage point.

I had noted at the time that independent analysis and polling has shown the House climate vote was not a major factor in last November’s tsunami.  But it probably played some role in at least one race, Rick Boucher’s loss in Virginia.  That said, Stanford public opinion expert Jon Krosnick’s more recent and detailed analysis of the 2010 election found:

“Democrats who took ‘green’ positions on climate change won much more often than did Democrats who remained silent,” Krosnick said. “Republicans who took ‘not-green’ positions won less often than Republicans who remained silent.

One can make a good case that climate and clean energy may well have played some role in Colorado — and it certainly played a big role in the California trifecta, the huge 10-point wins by Boxer and Brown, and the stunning 20-point defeat of Prop 23.

California and Colorado share some key features in common:

  • A strong environmental ethic
  • Leadership in the clean energy economy, with leading research institutions and many clean energy companies
  • World-class expertise on climate science
  • Many widely publicized studies on the great danger that unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases pose to the state

Now both states have governors who are climate hawks.

For team Obama, that’s probably just a coincidence.  But I asked Krosnick by email about the implications of his research for the President who has all but dropped “climate change” from his vocabulary.  Krosnick answered:

Our research suggests that it would be wise for the President and for all other elected officials who believe that climate change is a problem and merits government attention to say this publicly and vigorously, because most Americans share these views.  Expressing and pursuing green goals on climate change will gain votes on election day and seem likely to increase the President’s and the Congress’s approval ratings.

Precisely.

Finally, here’s the banner headline HuffPost ran for the AP story about Obama’s election strategy:

We’ll see if anyone in the campaign is really going to learn the lesson from Colorado — and public opinion and election analysis — or will they just say they are while continuing to pursue the same strategy  of abandoning one of progressive’s best issues.

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17 Responses to If Obama Looks to Sen. Bennet for Winning Strategy, He Needs to Make a Major Issue of Global Warming and Clean Energy

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Democratic leaders’ reluctance to discuss global warming on the stump has long been quite troubling. Damage to the progressive voter base is just as significant as losing opportunities to capture swing voters, who tend to accept climate science.

    Obama and the rest of them are going to have to work hard to regain trust here. Recent Administration actions on Arctic drilling and ozone regs have all but destroyed this trust, and few Democratic Congressmen have bothered to speak out about it. Whitehouse and Reid have been exemplary, but this should be a powerful plank in the Democratic Party platform. If it’s not, millions of voters will stay home, including this one.

    • Roger Shamel says:

      I agree, Mike. Sen. RI Whitehouse is superb.

      Obama can still save himself, and us, if he goes with the science (as Huntsman says he’ll do) and delivers the climate speech.
      America was built on science. America will be saved with science, if Obama speaks out.

      Call 202-456-1111 to ask Obama to do this!

  2. Robert says:

    PLEASE set the Colbert Report video embed so that it doesn’t automatically play…. please. please.

    thank you

  3. Jeff Huggins says:

    Does It Matter?

    Does it matter that “recent public opinion research and electoral analysis suggests [playing the global warming card] is a winning strategy”?

    I mean, does it really matter to the questions of whether, and how, and how strongly, President Obama should LEAD regarding educating the public about global warming and setting the stage to address it? Does it matter to the question of whether Obama should approve or say ‘NO’ to Keystone XL? If so, how?

    Does it matter to the question of whether Obama should take to the bully pulpit and do a clear, courageous, and compelling speech (speeches) about global warming and clean energy?

    I’m afraid that so much reliance on the point that playing the global warming card (whatever that means) would be a winning political strategy according to research and electoral analysis plays into the poor paradigms and bad thinking that the Administration uses. It affirms the lenses through which the Administration and most other politicians see the world — and those are deeply foggy, confounded, often misleading, and indeed inappropriate lenses for questions such as this, having to do with issues so huge and urgent such as global warming.

    In light of the science of the matter (global warming) and the ethics of the matter, and in light of understanding WHAT LEADERSHIP IS, and WHAT RESPONSIBILITY IS, the question of what polls and electoral analysis say, and what would presumably be a “winning political strategy” (talk about a judgment that would, in itself, call for so many assumptions that it loses any claim to reliability!) is hardly relevant, if it’s relevant at all.

    Indeed, it is BECAUSE President Obama and the Administration and his advisers see the world and their options through THAT LENS (the one implied by the phrase in the post) that we’re in this mess and they’re hardly doing anything. This post by you, Joe, implies the same lens — the same governing paradigm — that Obama IS using. The only difference is that he and/or his advisers interpret the raw data differently. (And indeed, they may have access to raw data that you don’t, which is one reason why any argument that uses this paradigm as its basis may be faulty.)

    Thus if ‘leadership’ means leadership, and if ‘responsibility’ means responsibility, and if the scientists are right, and if the ethical issues are as they’ve been stated by the top ethicists and others, then what do polling results and electoral analysis have to do with whether President Obama should speak up strongly, and take action where he can, regarding global warming, and indeed positively educate the public?

    It is a simple question.

    Also, I spent a good deal of my earlier career doing and interpreting market research (of many types, and done by some top-quality organizations) at Disney, at McKinsey, with the research folks at Leo Burnett, and in a toy company whose marketing function was populated with former P&G marketers. The thought that we’d be putting any reliance on “what the polls say” or on “what political research says” to determine whether to responsibly educate the public about global warming, and whether to push it as a vital issue, and whether to begin addressing it via public and prominent steps (say ‘NO’ to Keystone XL) sends shivers up and down my spine. Are you joking? At the very, very most, such research might provide clues, to be taken into consideration along with more important factors, as to how to optimize a necessarily strong stance on the issue. I’m NOT saying that nothing can be learned from such research. Instead, what I’m saying is this: that such research should not determine the major choices, and especially not whether to educate the public, make the issue a vital one (it IS a vital one), and make correspondingly responsible and necessary decisions along the way — including ‘NO’ to Keystone XL — no matter what political polling research and electoral analyses say about that question.

    In other words, a VERY BIG part of the problem is the lens itself, i.e., the paradigm itself. And this post seems to utilize and affirm the same paradigm — seems to accept and apply the same paradigm — that Obama and his political advisers use. Indeed, it’s the same paradigm that ALL of Washington uses, apparently; and this is one of the reasons that I’m starting to wonder whether ANY of the political think-tank organizations can do anything to help us actually responsibly understand and TAKE ACTION. OK, that last comment is perhaps a little unfair. Yet I can ask a simple question to help me understand CP/CAP’s point of view, which is this:

    Joe, in your view, does it matter that “recent public opinion research and electoral analysis suggests [playing the global warming card] is a winning strategy”? To be clear, I’m not asking whether such research can be helpful, to some degree, when it comes to optimizing the details of some tactics. Instead, I’m asking whether it matters when it comes to determining the major choices, for example: Should Obama begin to educate the public, responsibly and strongly, regarding global warming, clean energy, and related matters? Should Obama approve or say ‘NO’ to Keystone XL? Should Obama give a major address regarding the climate and clean energy? Should Obama MAKE climate change and clean energy major issues in the campaign?

    Here again, I’m not asking whether the poll results say that he should do these things. Instead, I’m asking whether you think that the poll results are the relevant and right bases upon which Obama should make these sorts of decisions.

    If I understood the post correctly, I think that the lens-paradigm itself is the wrong one. And that’s not a merely “theoretical” problem. Instead, it’s a huge problem having to do with the way Obama should be looking at the issue, the way the world is viewed, the way leadership and responsibility are understood, the choices that may ultimately be made, and also with messaging.

    Cheers and Be Well,

    Jeff

    • Merrelyn Emery says:

      Jeff, I wish it was all that simple. Our PM has made a series of excellent speeches about global warming, has negotiated and pushed through the House of Reps, a series of bills to put a price on carbon, and for all her trouble has a near terminal rating in the polls.

      And we don’t appear to have as many deniers as the USA and our equivalent to the Tea Party is nowhere near as well represented as yours. And we have a strong Green party and powerful independents as well.

      But the Leader of the Opposition is the man of the catchy slogan – ” a great big tax on everything” – and the population has more to worry about that just climate change despite it being the issue that will ultimately render all other issues immaterial.

      People like me are hoping that she can recover when the carbon price comes into effect and the population starts to see through the Opposition’s lies but nothing in politics is simple, and expecting that miracles will happen because Obama makes a speech or two, seems more like desperation than reality. Personally, I think that Old Ma Nature is going to do more to educate the population than any of our politicians, try as they may, ME

      • Jeff Huggins says:

        Hi ME, thanks for the comment. To be clear, I definitely don’t see it (or much of anything) as simple, even though I use that word now and again to emphasize certain points. I certainly don’t think that a few speeches will do miracles: I see them as necessary, and helpful, but not sufficient, a concept that too few people today seem to understand. Also, it might well be the case that a politician who does the right thing, and the thing necessary to move us in the right direction, may not be able to do so in a way that retains enough popularity with the masses in order to be reelected. So be it. We all act as though we assume that retaining power, politically, with continuity, from one administration to the next — here, a second term for Obama — is the necessary condition for all else. That’s not necessarily so, and it might not be possible to make needed progress AND retain political power without interruption. If so, what should the guiding principle be? Retaining power at any cost while Rome burns? Or doing the things necessary to begin to stop Rome from burning, even if that means risking the loss of power temporarily, to fight again another day? Granted, the situations are different there from here, in some ways. But here, in my view, Obama is following a deeply unwise strategy, and he’ll lose my support if he doesn’t say ‘NO’, with clarity and verve, to Keystone XL.

        Thanks for the comment, and I hope you’re well. Cheers, Jeff

    • Roger Shamel says:

      Jeff you ask, “Should Obama begin to educate the public, responsibly and strongly, regarding global warming, clean energy, and related matters?”

      No, of course not. That would spoil the game for Exxon-Mobil, the Kochs, et al.

      Instead, Obama should continue to play “hot potato” with our collective future, hoping that he too can pass it on to the next guy.

      Seriously though, how much harder would it be for Obama to give ‘the speech’ than to veto the KXL? Couldn’t he decide to do either or both all by himself (so we can hold him accountable for this decision)?

      Wouldn’t we be at least 1000 times better off with an informed public than with only a vetoed KXL pipeline? Isn’t this his job?

      I’m going to DC on November 6th, with 1000s of others, and I’m going to ask Obama to come clean, to “Lead on Climate.” Vetoing the KXL will then be a simple afterthought!

      Let’s all go to DC on November 6th to make this request. If you can’t go, then call 202-456-1111 to make your request via the White House comment line.

      If you can’t afford the call, then ‘click’ a few times to indicate support starting here http://www.facebook.com/#!/climateaddress.

      If you can’t make two clicks to help save a livable climate, then may God bless you!

  4. Leif says:

    Well said and I tend to agree with you for the most part Jeff. Thank you for the continued spotlight here. Is it important to warn fellow autos on a speeding highway of a wash out ahead or should I take a poll of the survivors before action? What the hell is an advance guard for otherwise?

    It appears as we, scientist and informed lay person alike, are the advanced guard and we elected to get Obama in the forward position last round. He talked a convincing story and he appeared a wise choice at the time. We dance with the one we brought, perhaps a quickie with the unattached fox/stud, in the corner. I hope that an impressive showing on Nov 6 will prevent us from making the stark choice you eloquently make come next fall. Occupy the Earth…

  5. Joan Savage says:

    The AP story summed up Bennet’s strategy as, “He portrayed his opponent, Republican Ken Buck, as out of step with state voters. He used strong fundraising to blanket the airwaves and build a large campaign organization to turn out Hispanics, young voters and women squeezed by the economic downturn.”
    Just because CP readers are obsessed with climate change (and we have reason) doesn’t mean it is guaranteed as a big enough single issue to be a swing vote. It might become so by November 2012, but we should look at this time at Bennet’s composite strategy as a playbook for Obama.
    Most Americans see climate change as “an” issue, not the only issue or even as a keystone issue. (“Keystone” is an architectural term that has been borrowed by ecologists to refer to a species or factor that is critical for ecosystem stability.)

    • Leif says:

      The reason most Americans view AGW as a back burner issue is because that is what serves the corporate interests and they control what the most see. If I am the only one on the road with a sign that says “Washout Ahead” but the green lights above say GO who are you going to believe? How 10 of us? 100? 1,000,000? The President? One cop? See…

    • Joe Romm says:

      It is a great wedge issue for progressive politicians who aren’t dreadful at messaging.

      • Leif says:

        Way cool to get a thumbs up form both Jeff and Joe on the same post. Two Palms up. Leif

      • Joan Savage says:

        Yes! And it might not be all progressives or along party lines.
        I’m looking forward to what dialogue comes up in political races in “red states” that have been so hard hit by extreme weather in 2011. It is already impressive to have Nebraska governor Dave Heineman (Republican) oppose the Keystone XL pipeline to protect agriculture.

  6. fj says:

    Announcing that climate change is an emergency and acting on it with wartime speed is a no-brainer, will be great for jobs, the environment, and the economy, and help give the future of humanity a fighting chance; and, (ho hum) might even help Obama retain the presidency for the next four years.

  7. Ken Barrows says:

    As a Denver resident, I don’t see Colorado has that eco-friendly. Sure, people love the outdoors, but the cars here seem to be bigger on average. I think it’s for the long treks to the mountains. And Buck (cuckoo!)got 49.5+% of the vote.

  8. WeatherDem says:

    FWIW, as a lifelong Colorado resident, I don’t think the climate/clean energy topic pushed Buck over the edge by the time Election Day rolled around. As much as I would like to think that it did, I don’t think that’s an accurate reflection of what really happened.

    Ken Buck was worse at messaging than Michael Bennet, and that is saying something. Buck expressed fringe views on issues that voters typically pay attention to – especially those that were salient in a lethargic economy – and that worked to keep enough “moderate Republicans” home that he lost. To be sure, Michael Bennet didn’t deliver impressive turnout from his base either (due to a promise to introduce a single-payer healthcare bill or amendment and then doing neither).

    Most Coloradans ended up voting for a milquetoast wishy-washy appointed suit instead of a lunatic Teabagger. While we might have been one of the few to do so in 2010, I don’t think Bennet is a Senator because of his clean energy message.