We’re here because we’ve witnessed the failure of political leadership on climate change for as long as we’ve been alive,” a college freshman named Quincy Robinson said, referring to notes on his phone. “The latest United Nations report on climate change gives us just twelve years to rapidly transform society and economies to stop the climate crisis.”

The main action of the day took place midmorning, when the protesters split into three groups, to visit the offices of Pelosi, Representative Steny Hoyer, the Democratic Whip from Maryland, and Jim McGovern, the Massachusetts representative who is poised to become the top Democrat on the House Rules Committee.

Of the three House leaders, only McGovern appeared in person, stepping out of his office into the hallway. (Pelosi doesn’t use her offices in the Cannon House Office Building, but she works from the Capitol.)

“I’ve met some of you before,” he said, scanning the group. “I’m here to talk about whatever you want.”

“We’re hoping that you will support Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s select committee for a Green New Deal!” someone in the crowd said.

“So the answer is I want to get to yes on that,” McGovern said. “But this is what we’re doing right now—we’re trying to figure out what the committee looks like, and this is a work in progress.”

He went on to talk about the House Committee on Rules, and jurisdictional issues—that some representatives on the Energy and Commerce Committee are worried their powers are being taken away. (Members of the Natural Resources Committee have also voiced such concerns.)

“I’m working with Leader Pelosi right now to get something in place that’s real, that has money behind it, that’s funded, so there can be a staff, and that’s where we want to get to.” McGovern said. “We’re working on it and I hope that we can get it.”

It was not the most straightforward endorsement, but the activists took it as a victory nonetheless. In the weeks since the campaign began, Democratic leaders have agreed to revive a select committee on climate change, but have said that it will not be focussed on a Green New Deal, and may not have subpoena power. Speaking this week to the Hill, Hoyer described it as a “recommendatory committee to the Energy and Commerce Committee and the environmental committees.”

In response to Hoyer’s comment, Prakash said, in a statement, “If true, this decision is an insult to the thousands of young people across the country who have been calling on the Democratic Party leadership to have the courage to stand up to fossil-fuel billionaires and make sure our generation has a livable future.”

Corbin Trent, a spokesperson for Ocasio-Cortez, told me, “What I can say is that I think that if we didn’t already have an interstate highway system in this country I think it would be hard for the Democratic leadership in this country to see a way forward to create one,” he said. “At this moment in time, it seems like shooting for the moon is hard for our leaders to do.”

Progressive activists demand more of Democratic politicians than they are willing to give. This dynamic is not surprising; it’s how politics works. But I think the reasons for the Democratic Party’s lack of ambition are instructive. When confronted by activists, the Democratic political class falls back to the old nostrums of pragmatism, responsibility, and reasonableness. Unfortunately for the country, what ultimately ensues is a profoundly irresponsible outcome. When thinking about 2020 (and beyond), I would contend that we need politicians who are willing to realize that true responsibility requires not less ambition, but more.

Global warming is the best example, but it’s not the only one. Take deficit spending, for instance. Republicans have had no qualms about ballooning the deficit to pass corporate tax cuts or increases to defense spending or the wall. As Dick Cheney explained, “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter”. He was right, both politically and economically. Voters seem to care very little about presidents who add to the deficit, so long as they see the benefits of deficit spending: lower taxes, better infrastructure, a stronger economy, etc. If voters did care, it seems hard to explain why the profligate Reagan and younger Bush were elected to second terms, while the responsible elder Bush was not. (Which was Cheney’s point.) And there is strong evidence that, particularly when the economy is operating below capacity, austerity only makes it worse. Sean McElwee presents the case much more thoroughly than I can. I don’t mean to rehash his arguments here, although it is worth reminding everyone that the deficit obsession is largely media- and elite-driven: “The media chose to ask five questions in the presidential debates about the deficit, but none about the environment.”

How has the Democratic political leadership absorbed these new realities? Seemingly not at all. The House leadership, fresh off their midterm victory, proposed reinstituting pay-go, requiring all new legislative initiatives to be paid for with corresponding spending cuts or tax increases.

“We all have responsibility for reducing the debt for our children,” Pelosi said last month at a forum hosted by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which advocates for reducing the national debt.

“Democrats believe that you must pay as you go. Whatever you want to invest in, you must offset.”

Disturbingly, the rhetoric of the Democratic Party leadership has changed very little from the 1990s. Back then, Pete Peterson — investment banker, Republican, and austerity class asshole — was named by Bill Clinton to his bipartisan commission on “Entitlement and Tax Reform”. (Funny how “entitlement reform” means cutting social benefits for poor people, but “tax reform” means cutting taxes for rich people.) Now, his foundation is dictating policy to the new Democratic majority, with the full agreement of the House Majority Leader.

Pay-go, in practice, would mean that initiatives like Medicare for All or a Green New Deal would be unworkable. The requisite spending cuts and tax increases would negate many of the positive effects and create immense political backlash. Imagine having to raise taxes or cut spending by $33 trillion to fully fund single-payer healthcare, in order to save the American people even more than that. It makes far more sense to fund these programs like the Republicans would: by letting future generations figure it out. In the interest of being pragmatic and responsible, under the guise of “reducing the debt for our children”, Pelosi would make it nearly impossible to reform our healthcare system or to save our planet before time runs out. And what could be less responsible than that?

The pattern repeats in other settings. Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, blocked Obama’s judicial nominees at every opportunity, rammed through a manifestly unqualified Supreme Court justice when they assumed power, and fast-tracked 59 lower court justices as well. Democrats, led by Chuck Schumer, have abetted McConnell, again professing pragmatism (“Senate Democrats have privately argued it’s in the party’s best interest to allow quick confirmation of judges in order to let endangered red state senators go home and campaign.”). Setting aside the issue that that campaigning didn’t seem to work in most cases, Schumer is acquiescing to conservative control of the federal courts for a generation. Along with that control will come the usual set of ludicrous rulings that entrench Republican power, kneecap ours, and undermine progressive legislation. Sure, we might save a Senator or two, but at what cost? Schumer’s ambition fails to extend beyond the narrow domain of short-term electoral politics. McConnell’s does not.

In the legislative arena, being pragmatic also comes with its own costs. Although Obamacare was a worthwhile piece of legislation, it was almost comical in its complexity. Coverage was expanded in (at least) three ways, through the state-based Medicaid expansion, the individual health insurance market (exchanges), and the employer market (the employer mandate). The funding sources were even more disparate and disconnected, comprising medical device taxes, the individual mandate penalty, Medicare taxes, taxes on investments of wealthy people. (There were also abortive taxes like the Cadillac tax on expensive insurance plans.). Obamacare also included various initiatives like reinsurance and the risk corridors needed to make the individual exchange viable for private insurers.

This complexity ultimately stemmed from a desire to be pragmatic. Obama himself explained that he would have supported single-payer if he were “starting from scratch,” but since he was not, he felt compelled to work within the system, not scrap it entirely. But Obamacare’s complexity, borne of pragmatism, also makes it vulnerable; each of its parts can be subtly weakened, causing the structure as a whole to collapse. The courts gutted the Medicaid Expansion. The Republican Congress repealed the individual mandate. Marco Rubio wiped out the risk corridors. States carved out exemptions to Medicaid: for instance, Arkansas imposed work requirements, with disastrous effects. The list goes on. Of course, any progressive legislation is vulnerable to Republican arson, but programs that are federal, have simple funding mechanisms, and are not means-tested, like Medicare, seem, on their face, far less vulnerable than programs that rely on states’ goodwill, have a lot of moving parts, and help mostly the poor, like Medicaid and Obamacare. The ones in the former category, like free college and Medicare for All, also tend to be much more ambitious than those in the latter.

Ambitious rhetoric doesn’t just produce better legislation. It also inspires the base and makes electioneering easier. What’s easier to explain to the electorate: “Healthcare is paid for by the government through your tax dollars”, or “The individual marketplace applies to people who can’t get health insurance through their employer, and aren’t poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, and aren’t old enough to qualify to Medicare. It involves a three-legged stool: the individual mandate, community rating, and subsidies. Let’s start by discussing the first leg, the individual mandate…”? I shouldn’t have to consult the Kaiser Family Foundation’s website to explain my preferred candidate’s policies.

In the article about the Sunrise Movement that I excerpted above, the names of two politicians feature prominently: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders.

In late 2015 and early 2016, Prakash and Blazevic, who knew each other from the fossil-fuel divestment campaigns they had led in college, began connecting with other youth climate activists to discuss how they might form a more effective movement. They saw how Bernie Sanders had helped spark a new political energy among their peers, who were suddenly inspired to see their student debt and poor job prospects in more political terms. For Blazevic, the moment of clarity came in December, 2015, when she read remarks from Sanders in which he used the phrase “fossil-fuel billionaires.”

“I remember being, like, ‘That is it, why are we not talking about the fossil-fuel billionaires in the climate movement?” she recalled. “I just remember feeling like this is the story that we should be telling in the climate movement. We should be talking about the people who are most responsible for this crisis, and naming names of the Rex Tillersons of the world instead of doing what the climate movement had been doing for a while, which was, at least, in my corner of it, getting lost in conflicts with college administrators over small pools of money.”

Why was it Sanders, and not Obama, Pelosi, Clinton, Hoyer, or Schumer, who inspired the Sunrise Movement? Because he brings a clarity of vision and a sense of ambition and scale that many other Democratic politicians lack. The 15 dollar minimum wage, the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, free college, the wiping away of student debt: each was an initiative birthed by the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. These policies are pleasingly ambitious, simple to explain, and workable. They recognize and cope with the reality that our problems are not caused by individual malefactors, or “small pools of money”; they are inherent to capitalism itself and will require attacking the “millionaires and billionaires” with the vehemence they deserve (not cozying up to them behind closed doors). I hope the Democratic Party in 2020 chooses a nominee with that same understanding.

Time is running out to solve our various crises. If we are unwilling to be ambitious, we might as well not try at all.


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