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Will Joe Save the Union and What It Means for US Climate Policy

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By Joel B. Stronberg

· 10 min read

[T]he Democrats are going so far left, they’ve left America.
- Ronald Reagan

The most powerful Joe in Washington has some decisions to make. No, no, not that Joe. Although he too has some critical choices confronting him. However, it’s a tale best told another day.

I’m speaking here about West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin (D). Yes, the Joe climate activists know for his refusing to support the other Joe’s Build Back Better plan, halving the infrastructure bill, and effectively canceling voting rights and abortion legislation. (I swear, you can’t tell the Joe’s in Capital City without a program.)

To be fair, Manchin hasn’t been the only Democratic senatorial barrier to passing various parts of Biden’s domestic plans. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) is perhaps a less prominent but no less effective barrier to the passage of Biden’s agenda. Together, the senators are preventing President Biden from making the once-in-a-generation public investments he promised would create the “strongest, most resilient, innovative economy in the world.”

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) minced no words when referring to his two Democratic colleagues.

You’ve got 48 members of the Senate who wanted to go forward with an agenda that helped working families, that was prepared to take on the wealthy and the powerful. You got a president who wanted to do that.

It looks like Sinema and Manchin are about to have their own problems—with each other. Manchin is willing to extend clean energy tax credits but is about paying down the deficit—not adding to it. It means that he’ll expect to find a way to offset the price of the credits, e.g., either by reducing government spending for something else or increasing government revenues, e.g., higher taxes. Sinema opposes tax increases of any kind.

I give the coal state Democrat credit for having accomplished what Biden said he would docould dobut hasn’t done—use his considerable experience to broker bipartisan action to implement his plan for America.

Biden initially intended to build an integrated domestic clean energy industry and reduce reliance on Chinese imports of critical materials, e.g., lithium, and electronics, e.g., semiconductors and photovoltaic cells and panels, but things got in the way.

Biden is just trying to stay up(right) on things. It’s no easy task given runaway inflation, Putin’s war, cross-aisle sniping between congressional Republicans and Democrats, conflicts within his party, and every executive order and agency rulemaking challenged in court.

The Supreme Court decision in West Virginia v EPA is due out in weeks. The case challenges EPA’s authority to issue rules under the Clean Air Act. If successful, it would mean that agency would no longer be capable of reshaping the nation’s electricity grids and unilaterally decarbonizing virtually any sector of the economy—without any limits on what the agency can require so long as it considers cost, non-air impacts, and energy requirements.

The worst thing Trump did to the nation’s environment was appointing nearly thirty percent of active federal judges and three of the nine US Supreme Court justices (SCOTUS). As a gross oversimplification, conservative legal theory is called textualism, its counterpart [purposivism], i.e., what was the intent—purpose—of the legislation.

For textualists, something is or isn’t in a piece of legislation. Their position is that if the members of Congress wanted something specific done, they should have said so when the bill was written or before it was enacted.

More liberal judges try to understand the purpose of a piece of legislation. They look to various sources and statements made by lawmakers in committee hearings and floor debates to accomplish the task.

Sudden reversals of decades of judicial decisions are not customary. However, the current conservatives on the nation’s high court put a lot of stock in the literal words of a law. These days the swing vote on the high court bench is Chief Justice Roberts.

Although a certified conservative, the Chief Justice is mindful that sudden lurches in opposite directions open the Court to charges of partisanship. Moreover, it fuels the debate on expanding the number of seats on the high court and term limits.

Had Biden’s vision been turned into reality, it would have truly transformed the nation’s energy sector from a problem into a solution.

The US and most of its allies are falling far short of their “sustainability” goals. Putin’s war has only complicated climate matters.

The one piece of actual climate-related legislation that history will record as part of Biden’s legacy is the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act (IIJA), popularly known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (BIF). How climate-friendly the infrastructure projects paid for by the Act largely depends upon the states.

The legislation provides $550 billion in new federal dollars to build a resilient and sustainable infrastructure. Including redirected funds already in agency budgets, the IIJA carries a price tag of nearly $1.2 trillion.

BIF is far from the sweeping climate legislation considered by the 111th Congress—further still from Biden’s proposed progressive agenda. The bill focuses on electric transportation, clean water, and expanding broadband to rural areas.

The infrastructure bill currently stands as potentially the most significant climate-related legislation of in decades. Why potentially?

Most, if not all, of Biden’s orders will be canceled on the first day by the next Republican who takes up residence in the Oval Office. Overturning a bill already on the books will be a much more challenging matter.

Biden stayed holed up in the White House for most of the BIF bill’s negotiations. The President was waiting for Manchin and ten establishment Republicans to reach an accord.

In the end, the House, too, had bent to Manchin’s will. The saga was more akin to a hostage-taking than a rational and reasoned deliberation. Being held hostage was the entirety of the left-of-center platform Biden ran on and was trying to govern.

Left-of-center, you ask? It’s one of the new taglines being tested by some Democrats in advance of November’s balloting. I had suggested #just-to-the-left-of-the-other-joe but was told it was too nuanced for politics and long for a URL. I bet it would have fit on a bumper sticker—back in the day, that is.

Progressive isn’t a particularly welcomed word these days in the White House, Democratic leadership offices on Capitol Hill, or the hustings in purple states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Arizona. The critical swing states, too, are a tale for another day.

Expect to see most Democrats running away from the progressive label and even some of Biden’s priorities in the 2022 primary and general elections. It’s a pattern likely to carry through the 2024 elections.

Jessica Cisneros, a 28-year-old immigration lawyer, is taking on nine-term Representative Henry Cuellar (D-TX) in a runoff primary on May 24th. The runoff was necessary because no candidate in the March balloting secured 50 percent of the votes to win the nomination outright.

It is the second time Cisneros has challenged Cuellar with the full-throated support of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY)—two stalwarts of the progressive movement. Cuellar won the 2020 primary with nearly 52 percent of the vote.

The Congressman is one of the most conservative members of the House Democratic caucus. He holds right-of-center views on abortion, immigration, and the critical importance of fossil fuels.

Cuellar is supported by establishment Democrats, including House Speaker Pelosi (D-CA), who are loathed to backing primary challengers to incumbents—right or left. Cisneros finished two percentage points behind Cuellar in the March vote.

Whether Cisneros wins or loses the May contest, her bona fides as a progressive are solid. And, yet, she too is running from the label.

In a recent interview, Cisneros explained progressive priorities:

I think people have this preconceived notion of what it means to be running as a progressive. It’s health care and jobs. That’s literally our bread and butter and what we’re talking about at the doors.

When the discussion turned to Earth’s warming. Cisneros had this response:

Yeah, it’s really important to me, too, but the way that we get people excited about addressing the climate crisis is, ‘This is a jobs program.’

It’s hardly the first time Democrats have run from a label. In 1988, the Democrats nominated Michael Dukakis, the liberal governor of Massachusetts, to run against George H.W. Bush for president. Dukakis was tarred by Republicans as being a LIBERAL and feathered by fellow Democratic candidates—lest they, too, would be tarred.

The problem for left-of-center Democrats is they’ve allowed Trump to dictate the dialogue.

Michael J. Bonin wrote at the time: [L]abels have a great deal of significance in American politics. A candidate who refuses to define himself allows his opponent to make those definitions. Bush’s campaign made good use of tags when they connected Dukakis to Willie Horton.

Horton, a Black life prisoner in a Massachusetts jail, raped a White woman and stabbed her companion while on a weekend furlough from prison. Dukakis had nothing to do with the prison system’s releasing Horton.

Bush’s campaign used the incident to call Dukakis soft on crime. His political ads went something like this: Dukakis not only opposed the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison.

The statement’s author—Lee Atwater—called the claims and their use a naked cruelty several years after Bush became president. (A fine time to be apologizing.) 

Republicans have been defining Democrats for decades. Atwater admitted that the Horton ploy allowed the Bush campaign to dictate the debates and not just those having to do with criminal justice.

The dreaded LIBERAL label was used to taint every policy proposed by Governor Dukakis. Swap LIBERAL with PROGRESSIVE, and history becomes today’s reality.

Much of the progressive agenda, e.g., climate change voting rights, environment, racial justice, and low-income assistance, has been the standard fare of Democrats for decades going back to when I was just a lad in Chicago in the time before fax machines (TBFM).

Individually policies and programs with climate, clean energy, paid family leave, and early education have polled consistently well with voters—particularly with Democrats and Independents.

The sentiment remains; it’s the packaging that’s the problem.

Nowhere is the packaging problem more acute than in the debates on climate change. The Green New Deal was little more than a title typed on an empty page before Trump got his hands on it and started telling Americans their hamberders would soon be on the endangered list. He even suggested they would no longer be able to fly—leaving travelers to row across oceans. 

Trump trivializes issues to hide his ignorance of them. In a classic bullying maneuver, Trump deflects through ridicule and sarcasm—the classic response of politicians and children under the age of four. I’ve recommended it myself to a politician or two.

My advice, Mr. President, [senator, representative, et al.] is If you don’t know the answer to a question or don’t like the question, then answer a question you would like to answer. When they look at you strangely, proceed to explain the question of the answer you’ve just given. Makes sense, yes?

Although a lesson for another day, such ploys should be guarded against. When asking a candidate to explain their position on climate change, don’t let them get away with superficial statements. Ask them specific questions.

History and Biden’s horrid job approval ratings bode badly for the Democrats in the upcoming midterms. It appears increasingly likely that the Republicans will take back the House and possibly the Senate given the levels of buyer’s remorse currently exhibited by likely voters—especially independent voters.

Look, I don’t envy the President his job. What he’s had to contend with—a pandemic, runaway inflation, war in Europe, responding to a rising tide of immigrants trying into the country legally or not, droughts, floods, forest fires, other natural and climate-related disasters, a highly partisan Congress and country, and a hostile minority party led by Donald Trump—would make Job get up and leave.

Biden asked to be president and convinced enough of the nation that he was more man-for-the-job than Trump. He just isn’t doing it very well, at least when it comes to his domestic agenda—the centerpiece of which was his proposed once-in-a-generation investment in a just transition to a low-carbon environment and economy.

From the next installment –

Staffers are to politicians as canaries are to coal miners. When they start dropping, there’s a problem. Key Biden staffers are beginning to drop out of the administration.

Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Joel B. Stronberg is a senior executive and attorney and the founder and principal of The JBS Group, a Washington, DC consulting firm. Joel is currently advising the Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization project at Columbia University’s Sabin Center along with his other clients.

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