Winning a Policy Debate Is All About Timing

How do policy options move to the top of a party’s agenda? The short answer: when groups fight for them, the right way, at the right time. And while it’s never clear what’s the right way, we can say some things about it, and a lot about the timing within the political cycle.

Matt Yglesias argued earlier this week that some climate groups are harming their own cause by being overly critical of the Democratic Party, along with diluting their message by talking up issues that aren’t directly relevant to climate change, some of which have the bonus disadvantage of being unpopular with the overall electorate. Political scientist Dave Karpf answered with the case for party-aligned interest groups fighting hard for their agenda at the legislating stage, and for the strategy climate groups have used to attempt to build alliances within the party even if it means they sometimes adopt unpopular slogans about non-climate-related policy areas. I tend to side with Karpf, but I recommend all three items.

For one thing, while Yglesias is correct that climate action depends on Democrats winning elections, there is very little that activist groups can do in the summer after a presidential election to have any significant effect on the midterms, let alone the next presidential election. Climate activists can criticize Joe Biden as harshly as they want, but most voters aren’t paying attention anyway, and those who are will have long forgotten whatever people were saying months before the election. This is the point of the political cycle when parties can afford to be in disarray — or, at least, they can afford to fight out the specifics of a bill in public without risking electoral costs. A party-aligned group that sits back passively when relevant bills are under consideration is a group that minimizes its influence.

I think Karpf is correct about climate groups and broader alliances. Protests in front of the White House are nice, and can potentially activate rank-and-file participation, but a better way to win influence within the party is to demonstrate the ability to control resources that matter — votes, money, expertise, personnel, media presence and more. One way to do that is to form a coalition with other groups. That said? It’s far from clear to me that the Sunrise Movement has made the best choices of allies. This isn’t a question of popularity in the nation at large; it’s a question of forming the coalition most likely to yield the most influence and (from the point of view of the activists) the best policy. And this is a party in which Biden, not Bernie Sanders, won the presidential nomination by a comfortable margin.

This gets to the overwhelming importance of nominations, especially presidential nominations but including those for all offices, in setting the party agenda and priorities. Biden, and the groups within the party who backed him, won the nomination; Sanders, and the groups who backed him, did well enough in 2016 and 2020 that some of their policy positions were adopted, and their preferences moved higher on the agenda. The change from the party made out of the 2008 presidential nomination is obvious in the differences between what the Barack Obama administration and Democratic Congresses pushed in 2009 compared with the far more aggressive plans in 2021.

Unfortunately for climate activists, the candidate who ran for president on their issue this time, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, ran a miserable campaign and never gained any traction at all, dropping out well before the Iowa caucuses. Strong climate measures have been moving up the Democratic agenda despite that, but imagine if Inslee, and not, say, Pete Buttigieg, had been a surprise success in the early primaries and caucuses, demonstrating that climate was a voting issue that could spark enthusiasm among Democrats. We can never be certain, but it’s likely that climate groups would be in a far better bargaining position now. The bottom line? Yes, it’s absolutely worth fighting during the legislating stage, and Yglesias is correct that all party groups have an interest in fighting hard in general elections — but democracy happens within the parties, and it happens during the nomination of candidates for public office.

5. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Smith on housing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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