John Edwards: Climate King Maker?

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to post an update but it looks like whatever technical snafu made it impossible for me to publish new entries has finally been fixed.

Of the things worth noting over the last few weeks, the biggest for me is John Edwards decision to drop his bid for the Democratic Party nomination. Though my support for his candidacy was merely personal and not representative of any organizational endorsement, I did have the opportunity to serve briefly on his campaign’s Clean Tech / Green Business Advisory Committee.

Why I was asked was probably more surprising to me than to those of you who know me. Of all those who attended the meeting with John and his wife, Elizabeth, back in October, I was most certainly the only “representative” of a grassroots nonprofit group. Everyone else had a long track record in policy work, clean technology or environmental business practices. But I was assured that my perspective was valuable to the campaign in its effort to both advance the most aggressive plan to tackle energy and climate issues but also to communicate John’s message effectively. And I tried to do my part.

But that’s not what I wanted to address. When we met with John, he made it very clear that his strategy was to focus his energies in Iowa and, to a lesser degree, New Hampshire. The logic of this approach was clear: John simply didn’t have the money to wage a big advertising campaign. And the mainstream media wasn’t giving him much coverage. So he had to rely on good old fashioned “retail” politicking. His hope was that a win in Iowa would garner him a ton of media attention in the week leading into New Hampshire and that he would see a huge gain there, much like Kerry had in 2004 when his numbers in New Hampshire jumped over 30% immediately after his victory in Iowa.

John spent more time in Iowa, I think, than any of the other candidates. Because of his effort there, his message, and the fact that over 90% of his precinct captains from the 2004 campaign were committed in 2008, John came in second in Iowa. But second wasn’t good enough. The story was Obama’s decisive victory and the pundits’ speculation of Clinton’s campaign demise. Even though he did beat out Hillary, John was barely mentioned by the mainstream media. To the campaign’s great frustration.

I supported John because I felt that he had the most aggressive and progressive plans to tackle global warming and a range of other critical issues. While my passion and work are about engaging everyday people in the struggle to tackle the climate crisis, I don’t believe this or many of our other systemic issues can be addressed without courageous leadership in Washington, D.C.

The biggest obstacle in my mind to that kind of political courage and leadership is the power of vested interests and the plague of campaign financing. Perhaps this will sound surprising, but I believe the proverbial silver bullet to many of our ills is to remove all private financing of political campaigns. To see this kind of transformation happen in Washington, D.C. would require change from within… it would require our elected representatives choosing against their short term interests and for the country’s long term interests. And the only way I could see that happening was if:

  1. Congress and the White House saw that changing campaign finance rules was, in fact, in their short-term political interest, and
  2. we elected a President and more congressional representatives who were willing to wage this battle.

    I believed that John Edwards was the best candidate to wage this campaign. But, alas, it was not meant to be. That was clear to me after New Hampshire and I became increasingly concerned, as John expressed his commitment to stay in the race through to the convention, that he would have a similar, unintended impact on the campaign for the Democratic Party nomination that Ralph Nader had on the presidential campaign of 2000.

    In retrospect, I think that most of us would say with certainty that Ralph Nader was not only wrong but dangerously wrong when he said that there was no real difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Now, I’m not comparing Hillary Clinton to George Bush. However, I think that while Clinton and Obama are largely aligned in their core policy positions, there is a significant difference between the candidates in terms of their leadership approach.

    And this is where I return to the topic of global warming. The climate crisis is a massive issue that is going to require unprecedented focus, courage and investment across all sectors of society if we have any hope of minimizing its impacts. It requires a movement of people. And it requires leadership. A 51% majority—even a filibuster-proof 60% majority in the Senate—can’t overcome the societal and technical obstacles that keep us from radically confronting our dependence on fossil fuels. Our only hope is a unified national and international commitment. On the part of everyone.

    This is where I believe an Obama presidency could be very different from a Clinton presidency (you’ll pardon me for not discussing the Republican candidates). I saw John Edwards as a candidate who would fight for change within the Washington establishment and against those interests that stand in the way of progress on climate change and other challenges. He’s a fighter. I threw my support behind him because I think, frankly, we have a fight on our hands. Now, Obama is not a fighter. But he has the potential to be a uniter.

    It scares me to pin so many of our hopes on the charismatic power of one individual. But, honestly, that’s all I believe we have left. While I respect Hillary Clinton, I don’t believe she is capable or even inclined to end the entrenched divisions in this country. And the degree to which special interests have jumped to contribute to her campaign—significantly more than any other candidate, Democrat or Republican—doesn’t signal that we have a sea change moment on our hands. And a sea change is what we need (pun not intended).

    Again, at the risk of bad climate inference, “Tsunami Tuesday” will likely determine who will be our next president. It’s for that reason, I was pleased to hear John’s announcement last week. I can only hope now that he and his advisors will see things as I do: that endorsing Barack Obama before Tuesday could make all the difference in the world.

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    2 thoughts on “John Edwards: Climate King Maker?

    1. Thoughtful post here. I keep asking myself “what is the President’s real job description?”

      Policy platforms, even wonkily detailed ones, are only promises- or ideas the candidate hopes to pass if elected.

      So is it “which candidate will be best able to marshall support for his/her agenda?” I think that’s pretty close.

      This makes me wary of the insider/outsider meme. Politics *is* a system and elected officials need to play it well. Too much “outsider” and you’ll never accomplish anything.

      I think you are saying something similar about bridging the “entrenched divisions”. Still, I haven’t decided whether I think Obama or Clinton is more likely to bring people under the same banner. Clinton comes off as too-smooth politician compared to Obama’s passion, but she did manage to collaborate with Newt Gingrich. We’ll see . . .

    2. Thanks for your comments Jay. I think HRC gets a major bum rap, but she does inspire quite a bit of antipathy in people. It’s not necessarily rational (though her campaign’s recent political shenanigans have left a legitimately sour taste in many peoples’ mouths), but it is palpable. And when people can’t stand the messenger, they often refuse to hear the message, no matter how reasonable.

      I’ve seen this first hand with people who absolutely refuse to see An Inconvenient Truth and even go so far as to deny the validity of climate change because of the messenger–Al Gore. And Hillary inspires even more wrath and irrational hatred that poor Al does.

      I just think this country is ready for a new beginning. People are tired of the political warfare. I heard Frank Luntz (not my favorite guy, mind you) speak the other night and he used a term I kind of like: “Post Partisan.” He talked about how much Obama is inspiring people who had given up or never before engaged in the civic process. I think we could use that kind of energy to tackle these calamitous issues. And I just don’t see HRC doing it. I never saw Edwards doing it either, but I did believe he was sincere in his fight for social and environmental justice.

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