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.