In a literal sense, too, the left created the conversation that took place Wednesday. The town hall happened only because activists spent months pressuring the Democratic National Committee to hold a climate-focused debate. The party rebuffed their efforts, but they have already succeeded, somewhat: During the 2016 debates, climate change got five minutes and 27 seconds of airtime. During this primary it received, in this town hall alone, seven hours.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the major candidate who has struggled the most with the new, more left-wing climate conversation, has officially adopted some of the tenets of activist ideas—early in his candidacy, Biden released a fairly aggressive climate plan that praised the Green New Deal and called for $1.7 trillion of federal spending on clean-energy R&D. (For reference, that is more than 600 times what the government spends on energy R&D today.) Yet at the town hall he flailed while trying to explain these policies, and many of his sentences seemed to end mid-thought. And when he faced questions from young activists to his left, he adopted a muddled, pleading tone.
“Look, I just—just look at all the organizations that many of you belong to, how they’ve rated my plan,” he said. “On balance, it’s been B-plus, or beyond that, by every one of these organizations.” Make me president—I’m B-plus! does not seem likely to enter the annals of great campaign slogans.
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Beyond any one candidate’s performance, the town hall was, on the whole, remarkably useful. Both the anchors and the audience asked good questions. The country’s ability to fight climate change will require rank-and-file political journalists to understand the nuances of climate policy, and to ask intelligent questions about it. CNN’s town hall showed that they can—and, more important, it showed that climate policy is likely to benefit from more public attention, not less of it.
Even with all this momentum, history tells us that some lessons can only be learned from experience. Despite Krugman’s advocacy, Obama, of course, won the 2008 primary. Many ideas that both he and Clinton endorsed during the primary—such as a Medicare-inspired public option—did not find enough support in the Senate, and they remain goals of health-care reform today. Yet the policy that Krugman admired so much in Clinton’s plan, the idea that he thought would ensure universal health care, actually did pass.
That idea? A legal requirement that every American had to buy health insurance. This “individual mandate” became the core of the Affordable Care Act, but it was also immediately very unpopular. In 2012, the Supreme Court’s liberal justices bargained with Chief Justice John Roberts to save it. Their efforts were only half-successful. Before Krugman’s column turned 10, President Donald Trump and a GOP Congress had repealed the mandate entirely.
The policy that was once prophesied to bring about universal health care ultimately almost doomed the effort. If climate advocates are very lucky, then some of their most cherished proposals now will seem just as foolhardy in 2029.