A New Report Says Change Happens From the Outside. But in the Obama Era, It’s Happened on the Inside.

Obamacare was a triumph of ugly compromises, backroom deals, and procedural shenanigans. For environmental reform to pass, Obama would need to play the same game.

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Pete Souza / White House

President Barack Obama talks on the phone with Solicitor General Donald Verrilli in the Oval Office, after learning of the Supreme Court's ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act June 28, 2012.

Harvard professor Theda Skocpol’s long report on why health care reform passed but cap-and-trade failed is getting a lot of attention this week, and deservedly so. Skocpol explodes many common critiques of the environmental movement, while offering some provocative new ones. She also eviscerates the myth that more “vigorous” or “engaged” presidential leadership is what’s needed to get legislation like cap-and-trade (or a public option, or, for that matter, an assault weapons ban) through Congress. And she recognizes that the radicalization of the Republican Party—its intransigent obstructionism as well as its hostile relationship with reality– is the most important development in modern politics, correctly concluding that President Obama had virtually no hope of getting GOP votes for his top priorities no matter what speeches he made or arms he twisted. It’s an interesting and thought-provoking report, with the kind of lively prose you don’t see much in academic research, so I hope everyone reads it.

But it’s wrong.

At least the main thesis is wrong. Skocpol’s big takeaway is that health care reform passed because of the outside game, a popular movement led by a group called Health Care for America Now, while cap-and-trade failed because enviros relied on the inside game. In fact, health care reform, like Obama’s other major legislative achievements, passed because of the inside game. It was a triumph of ugly compromises and backroom deals and procedural shenanigans. The difference between the two bills was that White House eventually managed to persuade all 60 Democratic senators to vote for Obamacare, while a bunch of Democratic senators from coal and oil states were never going to vote for cap-and-trade. And as Skocpol points out, GOP senators were never going to help Obama on either one.

I wrote a book about the change Obama engineered through an inside-game strategy—here’s an essay–about Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the irony of a change-the-system campaign producing a work-the-system president—so I was skeptical of Skocpol’s suggestion that grass-roots activism made Obamacare a reality. After all, I’m old enough to remember when Obamacare was deeply unpopular, so unpopular that “Obamacare” was considered a derogatory term. I also remember the seemingly interminable horsetrading that pushed the bill into law. The White House cut secret deals to buy the silence of the influential drug and insurance industries, then gave wavering senators whatever they needed to lock down their votes. Ben Nelson got a so-called Cornhusker Kickback for Nebraska hospitals. Mary Landrieu got a Louisiana Purchase. Joe Lieberman, looking out for Connecticut insurers, got a promise that the legislation would not include a public option, which, if I recall correctly, was a huge priority for HCAN, I group that I must admit I don’t recall very well. I do recall how after Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts suddenly gave Republicans enough votes for a Senate filibuster, Democrats devised a procedural trick to get the bill across the finish line with less than 60 votes; for reasons that escape me, it was attached to an unrelated reform of the student loan industry.

Still, I was open to the possibility that Skocpol had uncovered an untold story of people-powered politicking. But her 145-page report does not include a single shred of evidence, even anecdotal evidence, that HCAN in particular or the grass roots in general swayed a single vote in Congress. Quite the opposite: Skocpol writes that when she “interviewed DC players in health legislation, especially in the Senate, they all pooh-poohed HCAN’s efforts.” Yet she insists HCAN’s lobbying played a huge role in Obamacare’s passage, because “local groups in the network were always weighing in,” especially after Brown’s election seemed to doom the bill. “Without pressure from far beyond the Beltway, Congress would surely have scurried away from the arduous and controversial endgame at that point.”

That is pure speculation, contrary to the known facts about that endgame. The real story has been widely reported: then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted the only way out was through, Obama decided he felt lucky, and Democrats realized that failing to pass Obamacare after a year of ideological warfare would be even worse politics than passing it. “Big society-shifting reforms are not achieved in the US principally through insider bargains,” Skocpol writes. Well, this one was. So were Obama’s Wall Street financial reforms and Race to the Top education reforms.

So what happened to cap-and-trade? Skocpol smartly sees that the problem wasn’t Obama’s focus on health care; cap-and-trade was moving forward at the same time. She also makes excellent points about the folly of green-group efforts to pre-bake a climate deal with a few business representatives, as if politicians could be cut out of the process. And she has valuable insights about the environmental movement’s tendency to read way too much into polls suggesting that Americans like the environment. Intensity matters. I like tacos, but I don’t really care if my elected representatives advance the interests of tacos.

But the basic problem facing cap-and-trade was that several fossil-fueled Democratic senators opposed it, while Republican senators opposed everything associated with the president. As former GOP Senator George Voinovich told me: “If Obama was for it, we had to be against it.” On health care, Obama managed to thread the needle to get all 60 Democrats on board, including the reluctant ones; on climate, the needle was unthreadable. This is partly because environmental issues tend to fall by the wayside when the economy stinks. Health care, while not a pure pocketbook issue, was at least related to economic insecurity, while cap-and-trade actually would have increased energy bills, and as Skocpol rightly points out, selling it as a “green jobs” bill was a stretch. That said, even if enviros and Obama had embraced Skocpol’s “cap-and-dividend” idea, where money raised from greenhouse-gas polluters gets returned to the pocketbooks of taxpayers, there was no path to 60 in 2009. As she points out, the maverick John McCain who supported climate action in 2007 had become the partisan John McCain who opposed everything with Obama’s name on it, along with the rest of his party.

I hate to be a Debbie Downer, because I think the future of the planet depends on climate action. The good news is that climate action is possible without the broad popular mobilization that Skocpol suggests is necessary to produce change. I know this because Obama actually passed an incredibly ambitious climate bill through the inside game, pouring $90 billion into clean energy, launching a quiet green revolution that has increased solar installations more than 1000%, created an advanced battery industry for electric vehicles out of thin air, and financed unprecedented investments in renewables, energy efficiency, a smart grid, advanced biofuels, green-energy research, and much more. This bill—yes, I’m a bore about this—was called “the stimulus,” and it passed in Obama’s first month in office, not though grass-roots mobilization, but through an unseemly sausage-making process that involved backroom deals and painful compromises and many unprintable Rahm Emanuel discussions.

Public opinion isn’t irrelevant. But now that the GOP controls the House as well as enough Senate seats to sustain filibusters, a carbon cap won’t get through Congress unless inside-the-Beltway Republicans change their attitudes, not just about global warming, but about compromise in the Obama era. An outside game sounds great, but in the end, the votes get taken on the inside.

6 comments
jostt
jostt

As someone who observed closely, and to some extent participated, in the process that led to the adoption of the Affordable Care Act, and  has been directly involved in the implementation of the ACA, I agree with Professor Skocpol that the "outside game" has been very important.  This was clearly true in the late summer of 2009 when the media gave extensive--too extensive--coverage to the anti-reform outside game.  HCAN and groups like it were able to turn out ACA supporters at congressional town hall meetings to offset the noisy Tea Party opposition and keep momentum moving toward enactment.  Outside influence again became essential during the spring of 2010, when pressure on the House made final enactment of the Senate bill possible.  Finally, outside pressure has continued from HCAN, Families USA, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and groups like them on the federal agencies and on state legislatures and regulators to get reform effectively implemented to help consumers.  Of course, Baucus, Reid, Harkin, Rockefeller, Pelosi and the President, played a major role in bringing the ACA to fruition, but always, as Professor Skocpol illuminates, pushed on and supported by consumer advocates, including HCAN.

DaviddesJ
DaviddesJ

Your point that cap-and-trade couldn't pass because all Republicans opposed it, as well as several Democratic Senators from states that have benefited from cheap, polluting energy, is not only not a contradiction to Skocpol's report, it is, in fact, exactly what she says in her report.

xxjohnnyQ
xxjohnnyQ

The writer, Grunwald, states that he cannot reemember HCAN very well.  Me neither. I have no idea what HCAN is. Why doesn't  the writer identify HCAN?

BobShafer
BobShafer

CO2 levels are at 20 year lows, and not because of some Cap and Trade scheme or any Green Job Creation.  But because of Fracking and new technology that lowers the cost of Fracking.  Now if we wish to further lower our CO2 levels, then yes put money into R&D to create that Electric Car that travels 300 miles on a single charge and costs the same or less then a Gas powered one.  Or any number of other worth while projects.

Skocpol
Skocpol

I would like to have a chance to discuss these issues directly with Michael Grunwald, and hope he will contact me at the email in my report.

-- Grunwald misapprehends my key argument, which says that a COMBINATION of inside deals and outside pressure is needed pass highly controversial permanent legislation through Congress.  That combination most certainly was present in the health reform battles of 2009-10. Lawrence Jacobs and I published a major book dissecting all aspects of the Affordable Care legislative and poltiical pushes. based on extensive interviews and much other evidence. We gave lots of credit to insider bargains.

-- Many observers of American politics seem to think that INSIDE and OUTSIDE games are opposites. They are no such thing,  In many case, especially for huge economically redistributive reforms, the two must mesh to get Congress to act.  Inside bargains must features reforms sufficiently transparent to allow forces organized across many Congressional districts to push on the inside at the critical junctures.  National carbon caps are still worth fighting for, and political investments now must be made to get the right combination of inside and outside capacities in place for next time.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

 And she recognizes that the radicalization of the Republican Party—its intransigent obstructionism as well as its hostile relationship with reality– is the most important development in modern politics, correctly concluding that President Obama had virtually no hope of getting GOP votes for his top priorities no matter what speeches he made or arms he twisted.

Yep.  Imagine all the things Obama could have accomplished without unparalleled GOP obstructionism (DREAM Act?  Jobs Bill?)