The Outrage, Where Is It?

by Jonathan Cohn | June 29, 2010

Americans from across the country went to the beach on Saturday, holdings hands to protest offshore oil drilling and urge the use of clean energy. The effort, “Hands Across the Sand,” was the brainchild of a Florida environmental activist and has been in the works for months. But it gained new urgency and attention thanks to the oil catastrophe in the Gulf.

Or so you would think.

While nobody seems to have compiled an estimate of nationwide participation, press accounts from local papers tell of no more than a few hundred people showing up in Pensacola Beach, FL, and Santa Monica, CA--places where, presumably, turnout was highest. That probably means a few thousand people participated nationwide. That’s a perfectly respectable figure in normal times. But with the nation’s worst environmental catastrophe--an oil spill, of all things--in progress? Under those circumstances, the numbers seem a little disappointing.

I don’t want to make too much of this one example. (Or, for that matter, blame the organizers.) But it’s not like there are a ton of other examples to cite. We have no shortage of committed environmentalists in this country. But two months after the Deepwater Horizon rig first exploded, where are the marches on Washington? Where are the phone calls lighting up Capitol Hill switchboards? Congressional staffers I've contacted tell me constituent contact on climate change has increased in the last few weeks, but only incrementally. My reporting sample is pretty small; Hill staffers who have seen/heard otherwise should contact me. But it's consistent with other recent behavior on the liberal-left.

You hear a lot of disappointment with the Democratic leadership these days--for giving up too much on financial and health care reform, and not making aggressive climate change legislation a priority. And purely on substantive grounds, the argument has merit: Just this afternoon, Democrats in the Senate announced their willingness to scale back climate change legislation even further. But there’s a reason Obama and his allies are conceding this much: They’ve hit the political limits of what they can achieve.

To make a point that really shouldn't need repeating by now, it takes sixty votes to get measures through the Senate, a body that--by its very design--skews political power so that conservative states have disproportionate power. (A price on emissions isn't close to 60 votes right now; that's why the White House and Senate Democrats are making new concessions.) While Obama and congressional leaders obviously have some leverage at the margins, their most powerful weapon is the ability to make members of Congress fear constituent retribution. And that’s simply not a threat they can make stick when members aren’t getting an earful from people who care.

During the health care fight, Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, frequently delivered a message to liberals frustrated with Democratic Party leaders: “Be the wind at their backs.” It’s fine to make demands of the leadership, he agreed. But progressives who wanted bolder action in Washington had to create a political environment where bolder action was actually possible. SEIU did just that, pressuring not just Democratic leaders (by demanding presidential hopefuls commit to comprehensive health care reform) but also wavering members (by threatening potential “no” votes with primary challenges). More important, it turned out bodies--for rallies, letter-writing campaigns, and phone banks--to secure the politicians’ attention. But even on health care, that behavior was more the exception than the rule.

None of this is to say Obama, in particular, couldn’t do more to rally supporters. Count me among those persuaded that, by waiting as long as he did for a big speech on climate change, he missed a political opportunity to focus public attention on the issue. And, to be clear, it’s not as if the environmental community is sitting on its hands. Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow and direct of climate change advocacy at the Center for American Progress, points out that organizations like CAP’s Action Fund, the Sierra Club, and Environmental Defense Fund have been organizing everything from protests at district offices to Washington visits from military veterans pushing energy independence--with more activism to come. That's all to the good. Even a scaled-back climate bill could make a difference, as my better-informed colleague Brad Plumer has argued. But the existing pressure doesn't seem strong enough to make it a reality.

P.S. Applying grassroots pressure through rallies and phone calls isn’t necessarily the same thing as moving public opinion overall. And the latter would obviously help as much, if not more, than the former. If you’re interested in that subject, I highly recommend an article by my longtime colleague Jason Zengerle in the latest issue of New York magazine.

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