Waiting on Massachusetts

It seems as though there are an absurd series of magnifying glasses over top of the Massachusetts senate race. If Scott Brown, the Republican candidate, takes over the senate seat of the late Ted Kennedy there is a good chance health care reform will die. If that happens, it seems certain that climate change will become even less of a priority in the United States. Also, it would probably increase the chances of a big swing towards the Republicans in the upcoming mid-term elections. If they lose their supermajority in the senate, the chances of either a domestic cap-and-trade strategy or the ratification of an international climate change treaty with binding targets will become very remote indeed.

All this at a time when global emissions need to peak in the next 1-10 years, if we are going to have a decent chance of avoiding more than 2°C of temperature increase. Note that that is a global peak; to accommodate continuing growth in poorer countries, places like Canada and the US will need to cut faster and deeper than average.

Of course, just because there is a plausible connection between a Republican win in this senate race and eventual failure to address climate change, the logic of failure cannot be flipped around to produce a template for success. To get the kind of action we need on climate change, a lot more things will need to go right.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

23 thoughts on “Waiting on Massachusetts”

  1. “This race has little to do with Ms Coakley or Scott Brown, the Republican, or even the state of Massachusetts. It’s all about the national climate—the inchoate sense of frustration amongst voters at the slow pace of change, at the promises made that are now in limbo, for having extended themselves emotionally in 2008 only to feel chastened by circumstance in 2009. That, and health-care reform.

    And although Republicans are feeling confident about the results, there is a potential danger for them. A Senator Brown would be an important pick-up, depriving the Democrats of the 60-seat majority they had in 2009. But it would slightly imperil the sense of outrage the Republicans need to make major gains in November. And the Democrats would retain 59 seats.”

  2. “Just last week, Brown visited the home of a voter in Harvard, Jack Farren, who asked him, “Do you think that whole global warming thing is a big fraud?’’

    Brown’s answer was illustrative, in that he did not reject the fraud theory.

    “It’s interesting. I think the globe is always heating and cooling,’’ he said. “It’s a natural way of ebb and flow. The thing that concerns me lately is some of the information I’ve heard about potential tampering with some of the information.’’

    Brown continued, saying: “I just want to make sure if in fact . . . the earth is heating up, that we have accurate information, and it’s unbiased by scientists with no agenda. Once that’s done, then I think we can really move forward with a good plan.’’

    Coakley, in an interview yesterday in Boston after addressing a breakfast meeting of commercial real estate developers, said she believes that the climate is changing, that human activity is to blame for much of the change, and that the time for action is now.”

  3. I’m sure all the Americans living in states which, unlike Massachusetts, do not already have decent healthcare legislation will be really thanking the voters for that result.

  4. The health bill was worth nothing even before this. They could always have used reconciliation to pass a much better bill. But then they wouldn’t be able to hand out hundreds of billions of dollars to private industry in the form of subsidies (as the WH previously promised in backroom deals in the summer).

    They will now try to pass the Senate bill as-is, but the House may let it die. I hope they do let it die, as it’s my opinion the current bill is worse than nothing (individual mandates, no ban on pre-existing conditions, no public option, defunding abortion services, etc) It’s possible, if all else fails, they will turn to reconciliation, which would be the best possible outcome. It will tie their hands and force them to pass a good bill.

  5. I don’t think either the House or Senate health bills are terribly good pieces of legislation, but I worry about the effect failing to pass some kind of health care reform will have on this administration.

    It is always depressing when the character of a political system makes it impossible to draft or enact decent policies.

  6. 19 January 10
    Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts will put the chill on climate legislation

    Republican candidate Scott Brown has won the race to replace the late Senator Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts and, as I wrote earlier today, this does not bode well for the clean energy and climate change legislation currently being considered in the Senate.

    Up until a couple of weeks ago this was seen as an easy win for the Democratic candidate Martha Coakley, but as the polls began to tighten, the political punditry began to speculate what a Republican win would mean for President Obama’s health care reform package. In a nutshell, and without getting into wonky talk about super-majorities and the like, a Brown win in the Bay State most likely means health-care-for-all is dead in the water.

    While the ramifications for the health care package have rightly been the talk of the town and the cable news talking heads, there are other parts of Obama’s plan that will also suffer. One of the biggies is the American Clean Energy And Security Act, also known as the Waxman-Markey bill or the green jobs/clean energy bill.

  7. “If health-care reform still has a chance of passing in some form, two other big domestic measures seem in greater doubt. One version of a cap-and-trade bill for limiting emissions of greenhouse gases passed the House last year and another is making its way through the Senate. But it is unpopular among voters, especially in the downturn. A mooted immigration reform that would regularise the status of millions who are in America illegally has even less chance of passage in a country feeling grouchy and vulnerable.

    Days before the election some Democrats were saying that their party needed a slap to get its fighting spirit up. Republicans may not cruise to big victories in November’s mid-term elections simply by filibustering everything the president sends to the Senate in the next ten months, but the win in Massachusetts is a big boost for the party. Mr Obama remains reasonably well liked—his job-approval ratings hover at around 50%. But many Obama supporters voted for Mr Brown, which bodes ill for the Democrats in November.”

  8. Worst case scenario—and probably least likely—Brown’s 41st vote in the Senate destroys health care reform and gridlocks the rest of Obama’s agenda, from regulatory reform to cap-and-trade. Brown’s vote might not even be necessary: Moderate Democrats, seeing the vote in Massachusetts as a referendum on health care reform, could bail even without Republicans filibustering. (Sen. Evan Bayh has already signaled his concern.) Some Democrats might even retire to avoid humiliation in 2010, while Democrats who stay and fight go down under a populist wave.

    More likely, Democrats make health care work. They still have options: Pass the Senate bill in the House and send it directly to the president’s desk. Or scrap all the changes to the Senate bill except for funding provisions, and pass those using the reconciliation process, which requires a bare majority rather than 60 votes. They might not even need to delay seating Brown. Democrats may still have trouble passing other legislation. But Brown probably wouldn’t be the be-all-end-all obstructionist his fans think. He could well be in the Olympia Snowe mold rather than the Mitch McConnell mold. Not cooperative, exactly, but persuadable.

    Meanwhile, passing health reform could help pull Democrats out of their Bay State depression and give them a major talking point on the campaign trail in 2010. (This assumes that current opposition to the bill will diminish once people actually start benefiting from it, as when Congress first passed Medicare.) “

  9. The Massachusetts election
    The man who fell to earth
    After the Democrats’ stunning loss, Barack Obama has no choice but to move back to the centre

    Jan 21st 2010
    From The Economist print edition

    POLITICAL upsets don’t get much more embarrassing than the one delivered by the voters of Massachusetts on January 19th, just in time to ruin Barack Obama’s first anniversary in the White House. To lose, on a 43-point swing, a Senate seat that has been in Democratic hands since 1953 takes some doing, even in the teeth of the worst recession since the 1930s (see article). Nor has it come in isolation; last November the Democrats managed to lose the governor’s race in supposedly rock-solid New Jersey, as well as the one in Virginia, the state that symbolised the breadth of Mr Obama’s appeal in the 2008 election. A succession of Democratic senators and representatives have decided to retire rather than face the voters in this year’s mid-terms.

    Mr Obama’s popularity has fallen faster than that of any post-war president bar Gerald Ford. Independents are running from him as fast as their legs will carry them: in Massachusetts they voted Republican by almost three to one. Mr Obama’s personal intervention there was as ineffectual as his two forays to Copenhagen. His agenda has been dealt a mighty blow. So where does he go from here?

  10. “Right now, the program is showing that Democrats will retain an average of 54.7 seats in the 112th Congress. The distribution, however, is slightly asymmetrical, so the median number is 54, and the modal number is 53.

    And things could, potentially, get a whole lot worse than that; the program recognizes that the outcome of the different races are correlated based on changes in the national environment. Between the surprise in Massachusetts, and races like California and Indiana which are potentially coming into play, there’s about a 6-7 percent chance that Republicans could actually take control of the Senate, and another 6 percent chance or so that they could wind up with a 50-50 split. On the other hand, there’s still a 7-8 percent chance that the Democrats could regain their 60th seat if the national environment shifts back in their direction.”

  11. “All right — enough with the analogies. But it would be hard to overstate just how demoralizing this particular sequence of events has been for base Democrats. And when people get demoralized, they tend to dig in and make their problems worse.

    That holds for voters, certainly, but unfortunately it also seems to hold for Democratic members of the Congress. What they need to remember is that while financial reform and the bank tax are the jobs bill are nice — things that certainly ought to appeal to swing voters and which could mitigate some of the electoral damage — they mostly fall into the category of cleaning up the mess. Financial reform isn’t what gets any Democrat out of bed in the morning. Things like health care, a climate bill, expanded rights for gays, women, and lesbians, a fairer tax code — those are the things that signify progress, the promise of which keeps people motivated for the long run. The risk is that, when we get to November, the base looks at the fact that significant progress has not been made on any of those core, defining issues, that the political and procedural hurdles are immense, that Democratic majorities will (at best) shrink, and that the party leadership seems nonchalant in good times and panicky in bad ones. And they’ll conclude that the progressive party is incapable of making progress.”

  12. This certainly leaves the Democrats with a tough decision to make: should they try to force through health care or not?

    If they do and succeed, they will have an achievement to point to later.
    If they do and fail, they can at least argue that they tried and got stopped.
    If they don’t, they risk going into the mid-term elections with little to show for the past two years.

    Of course, a lot depends on how the public would respond to trying to force the bill through, especially the controversial bits about things like abortion cover.

  13. Climate Change

    The situation: The prospects for getting a cap-and-trade bill aimed at cutting U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases passed through the Senate this year dropped to almost zero with the election of Scott Brown to fill Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts seat. Sen. John Kerry is trying to pull together a bipartisan compromise bill combining cap and trade with expanded domestic oil drilling. But the Senate is more likely to tack clean-energy measures onto a job-creation package. Regardless, it appears unlikely that President Obama will be able to deliver on the emissions pledges he made at December’s Copenhagen summit. Plus, a showdown is brewing with the Environmental Protection Agency, which has threatened to impose its own tight emissions regulations if Congress fails to act.

    What he won’t say: That stopping climate change is a major concern. In a Pew Research Center poll released this week, the U.S. public ranked global warming last out of 28 priorities for the administration. So while you’re likely to hear some talk of “green jobs” and “investments in renewable energy” in the State of the Union address, don’t expect to hear the phrase “cap and trade.” Obama might have the rhetorical gifts to frame the issue as an appeal to national greatness — keeping the planet’s temperature from rising another 2 degrees Celsius by 2050 is a more practical goal than putting a man on the moon in 10 years — but with larger administration priorities such as health-care reform also in jeopardy, it’s doubtful he’ll spend much political capital on it.

  14. The death knell for comprehensive cap-and-trade

    The dust has settled a little, but this is still an extraordinarily volatile political climate. Conventional wisdom has been that with polarization so high and tempers so raw, the climate/energy bill is doomed. I’ve been holding out slivers of hope, though. The Obama administration and Harry Reid have both recently reiterated that they want a comprehensive bill this session.

    Lindsey GrahamNow, however, it looks like Sen. Lindsey Graham—the token Republican working on the Kerry/Graham/Lieberman “tripartisan” bill—has officially bailed on an economy-wide cap-and-trade system:

    “Realistically, the cap-and-trade bills in the House and the Senate are going nowhere,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who is trying to fashion a bipartisan package of climate and energy measures. “They’re not business-friendly enough, and they don’t lead to meaningful energy independence.”

    Mr. Graham said the public was demanding that any energy legislation from Washington focus on creating jobs, whether by drilling for offshore oil or building wind turbines.

    “What is dead is some massive cap-and-trade system that regulates carbon in a fashion that drives up energy costs,” he said

  15. “If it’s too easy to pass legislation in many countries (including Britain), it seems too difficult to get anything done in Washington, with the 60-vote hurdle now the rule rather than the exception. Excepting the Democrats’ rare, tenuous, and wasted supermajority, power generally resides, however improbably or quixotically, with the minority party, which attempts and often succeeds in stymieing every majority initiative. Minority obstructionism, of course, can be principled. But its chief attraction is that it absolves the opposition of responsibility for anything while making the majority look, well, stupid. As former British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin once said of the press, this kind of “power without responsibility” has been “the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.” And Democratic complaints that “It’s the system, stupid” aren’t likely to impress too many voters — who, rather rightfully, despise Congress no matter who runs it — even if, by any reasonable measure, the system is dysfunctional and perverse.

  16. Rick Salutin
    Is it already over for Obama?

    The change he brought was the election of a black man as president, full stop

    The saddest event in politics is the death of the hope that things can basically change. This genre of loss involves a setback not just to an individual but to a population, or a large part of it, which placed its hope in a candidate or party. We last saw it here in the early 1990s, when Jean Chrétien’s Liberals forsook the hope and change of their red book, on which they were elected, and chose instead the insipid task of balancing the budget by further shredding social programs. Now it’s happening in the United States.

    It involves Barack Obama’s presidency. It appears at this point that its main achievement will turn out to have been his election itself. That, I rush to add, was a big feat. But it is entirely different from governing in a new way. He promised “change,” which is pure rhetorical boilerplate for presidential candidates, and he brought it. But the change he brought was the election of a black man as president, full stop.

    Some of the blame is his. He may have succumbed to a near inevitable hubris or, as someone said of Kim Campbell’s abrupt fall from grace as Canada’s first woman prime minister, “believing your own bullshit.” But the real problems are structural: There’s not much any president can do outside the frame of what all others do. The list includes giving Big Money what it wants while occasionally badmouthing it, and making war on small countries. You get some choice about which countries.

  17. “Why are so many American voters enraged by attempts to change a horribly inefficient system that leaves them with premiums they often cannot afford?

    Why are they manning the barricades to defend insurance companies that routinely deny claims and cancel policies?

    It might be tempting to put the whole thing down to what the historian Richard Hofstadter back in the 1960s called “the paranoid style” of American politics, in which God, guns and race get mixed into a toxic stew of resentment at anything coming out of Washington.

    But that would be a mistake.

    If people vote against their own interests, it is not because they do not understand what is in their interest or have not yet had it properly explained to them.

    They do it because they resent having their interests decided for them by politicians who think they know best.

    There is nothing voters hate more than having things explained to them as though they were idiots.

    As the saying goes, in politics, when you are explaining, you are losing. And that makes anything as complex or as messy as healthcare reform a very hard sell.”

  18. “This White House-centric structure has generated one overriding – and unexpected – failure. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Mr Emanuel managed the legislative aspect of the healthcare bill quite skilfully, say observers. The weak link was the failure to carry public opinion – not Capitol Hill. But for the setback in Massachusetts, which deprived the Democrats of their 60-seat supermajority in the Senate, Mr Obama would by now almost certainly have signed healthcare into law – and with it would have become a historic president.

    But the normally liberal voters of Massachusetts wished otherwise. The Democrats lost the seat to a candidate, Scott Brown, who promised voters he would be the “41st [Republican] vote” in the Senate – the one that would tip the balance against healthcare. Subsequent polling bears out the view that a decisive number of Democrats switched their votes with precisely that motivation in mind.”

  19. According to FiveThirtyEight.com, the Democrats are in line for a beating, come the mid-term elections.

    Their chance at getting back to 60 senate seats is projected at less than 10%. There is about a 50% chance that they will end up with 54 or more seats, down from 60 when Al Franken was confirmed in June 2009.

    If the chances of the US passing climate change legislation are poor now, they will probably be even worse after November. Bad news, for the world as a whole.

  20. Obama staked it all on health care – now he’s assured of his legacy

    Konrad Yakabuski

    Washington — From Monday’s Globe and Mail Published on Monday, Mar. 22, 2010 4:53AM EDT Last updated on Monday, Mar. 22, 2010 12:07PM EDT

    It was only by finally freeing his inner liberal and suppressing his pragmatic streak that Barack Obama was able to make history by steering through Congress the most consequential and progressive U.S. social legislation in more than four decades.

    The passage by the House of Representatives of Mr. Obama’s $940-billion (U.S.) overhaul of the health-care system ranks with the 1935 creation of Social Security and the 1965 advent of Medicare as a milestone that will change the face and character of this country.

    Presidents since Harry Truman have aspired to put the United States on the path to universal health insurance for all of its citizens, only to be out-manoeuvred by lobbyists and politicians who exploited Americans’ innate suspicion of government to win the day.

    That Mr. Obama got farther than all of them – farther than Kennedy, Nixon, Ford or Clinton – assures him of a legacy that only weeks ago seemed in doubt. It also infuses his presidency with a burst of renewed potential to build on.

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