A wave of missed opportunity

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune … On such a full sea are we now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves,  or lose our ventures.”

Shakespeare put those words into the mouth of Brutus, and they echo through the centuries when events like the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico change the fundamental political equation for all of us.

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Opportunities, and the power to use them, ebb and flow. Brutus argues that you must “go with the flow” (words from the ’60s, not Shakespeare) or missed opportunities may ebb away forever.

It seems such a simple truth that one cannot help but wonder why the environmental movement is not using this opportunity to force action on a real climate bill. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has made the excuse that “the climate bill isn’t going to stop the oil leak” as a rationale for not pushing the Democrat majority in Congress and the White House for climate change legislation.

Yes, it is true, passing a climate bill with teeth in it will do nothing to plug the leak at the bottom of the Gulf. But the right messaging could have made the case for alternative energy sources, limits on carbon emissions and a national commitment to renewable energy. Instead, most environmental groups have backed away from taking advantage of this political climate — some say out of wanting to avoid any criticism of President Obama.

“They’re feeling they have one person to do business with,” says presidential historian Douglas Brinkley of Rice University. With the Obama administration, the best shot green groups have ever had at real reform, they are loath to say anything that might suggest criticism of the president. The harshest message from environmentalists has been an early and anemic protest outside the White House calling the ruptured well “Obama’s Crude Awakening.” That’s pretty mild. Just imagine the protests, speeches, ads and other attacks that would have been aimed at a Republican president.

But the message needn’t be harsh. Obama didn’t cause the rupture of the BP well and can only do so much to fix it. He has been very present in the Gulf region and has shown that he’s willing to play hardball with BP over paying for the cleanup and damage to businesses and the Gulf’s fragile environment. Pressing him and the Democrat leadership in the House and Senate for long-term solutions need not use a critical message. In fact, an advocacy campaign could be supportive of the president and critical of Republicans for opposing limits on greenhouse gases when we have such a huge disaster to illustrate one of the dangers of relying on an oil economy.

The lack of will for a tough fight was made abundantly clear this week when Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) led a bipartisan group of senators to the White House to discuss their climate and energy proposal, which would impose economy-wide limits on greenhouse gases. Clearly, the will is not there to fight for that. The senators left the White House saying they and the president would settle for capping emissions only from electric utilities.

Republican opposition to a broader bill seems firm. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee, flatly predicted that any measure imposing mandatory limits on greenhouse gases “will not sell in this country.” Just about the only Republicans willing to do anything are Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. Both have said they’d likely support a cap limited to emissions from electric utilities. It is still unclear if those two bring enough Republicans to the table to get even the scaled-back legislation passed.

It seems that the mainstream environmental movement has been co-opted by the establishment. They have forgotten, or are afraid to follow, a guiding principle of one of the sharpest and toughest political minds in Washington. “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste — and what I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things that you could not do before.” Those are words White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel lives by.

Like Brutus, he understands how to use the rising tide. It is clear that environmentalists do not. Their timidity is wasting what may be the best opportunity in their lifetime to pressure the Congress to take action.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcsa.com