Are Environmentalists Too Reasonable?
This recent column by E.J. Dionne about the influence of Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich in making Obama seem far to the left has been getting a lot of attention in the progressive blogs. Here the heart of the matter:
When Rush Limbaugh sneezes or Newt Gingrich tweets, their views ricochet from the Internet to cable television and into the traditional media. It is remarkable how successful they are in setting what passes for the news agenda.
The power of the Limbaugh-Gingrich axis means that Obama is regularly cast as somewhere on the far left end of a truncated political spectrum. He’s the guy who nominates a “racist” to the Supreme Court (though Gingrich retreated from the word yesterday), wants to weaken America’s defenses against terrorism and is proposing a massive government takeover of the private economy. Steve Forbes, writing for his magazine, recently went so far as to compare Obama’s economic policies to those of Juan Peron’s Argentina.
Progressives have long been concerned about expanding the range of acceptable ideas and labeling their values as mainstream. I am surprised by the frequency the President of the United States is compared to history’s villains by mainstream Republicans. However, we should be less concerned about Republicans defining the right, then progressives defining the center.
The idea of pushing the Overton window or range of acceptable ideas by promoting fringe ideas to make radical ideas seem more mainstream is real enough, but the context is important. To most effectively alter the national dialogue fringe and radical idea should be:
1) Presented soundly,
2) Addressed to the appropriate audience, and
3) Delivered by the right messengers
Newt Gingrich is a respected, but highly unpopular figure. Limbaugh is neither especially popular or respected. Their message is essentially amounts to name calling, “racist”, “socialist”, “unAmerican”. And they mostly preach to the choir of right wing news consumers. Even the more respected and popular Republican figures are minimizing their effectiveness by attacking while Obama is popular. Limbaugh and Gingrich might move the debate to the right, but at the risk of destroying their own credibility.
More troubling and somewhat more controllable is the current practice of many environmentalists of letting pro-business forces continually redefine the center. We’ve seen many environmental groups approach the Waxman-Markey climate bill from a highly uncritical stance. Every compromise is greeted by cheers from environmentalists glad to see the bill getting closer to becoming law, no matter how odious those compromises are.
The problem is that the reasonable position on compromise and the rational position on compromise aren’t the same. No smart negotiator starts off by saying he’ll bend over backwards to make a deal happen. But environmentalists routinely say any climate bill would be a great improvement. In the case of Waxman-Markey some major environmental groups endorsed the Waxman-Markey framework before it was clear what the Waxman-Markey framework would be. The signal to shrewd industry negotiators is clear, Waxman and Obama have plenty of latitude to cuts deals.
And the result is a bill that needlessly gives away many billions to industry on the backs of consumers and will likely fall short of emission reduction targets because of loopholes and permissive offset definitions.
Which isn’t to say that environmentalists could get great results if they just got intransigent about everything, but sometimes intransigence is the optimum strategy even if you’re looking to reach a reasonable compromise.