Mitch McConnell might not endanger the planet

Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who will almost certainly remain as Senate majority leader, is now at the peak of his power. He will likely no longer be constrained by the need to defer to Donald Trump; he will be the new de facto head of the Republican Party. He will block any legislation that would help the Democrats keep the presidency. How can a President Biden work with someone like that? 

Climate change is the direst threat that the human race has faced in centuries. Biden’s plans to address it are in big trouble. But he might still be able to accomplish a lot, as long as Republicans think he won’t get much political credit for it.

McConnell’s first priority will be to make Biden’s presidency fail. In 2010, McConnell said that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” He tried to stymie Obama’s efforts on health care reform, banking reform and economic stimulus — all issues that Republicans in the past would have cooperated in addressing, because leaving them unattended would be disastrous for the country.  

Had the Republicans stopped Obama’s stimulus – their alternative consisted of almost nothing but tax cuts – the economy likely would have gone into a prolonged depression. McConnell didn’t seem to care. The defeat of President Clinton’s health care plan helped make Newt Gingrich speaker of the House. When Democrats cooperated with George W. Bush on No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D, it helped reelect him. These episodes taught McConnell that it would be better for Republicans if a Democratic president could claim no achievements. (Biden and McConnell are personally friendly, but business is business.) 

This is, of course, appallingly cynical. Nonetheless, McConnell is a lot better than Trump. The closeness of the 2020 election shows that, had Trump responded competently to COVID, he might have saved huge numbers of lives and would have been reelected. McConnell, on the other hand, is exceedingly rational. He even cares about the United States. The trouble is that he seems to care more about the power of the Republican Party. 

So how can Biden work with someone like that? It has been suggested that he can’t; that he is already hamstrung. Without question, many of Biden’s largest ambitions, such as a repeal of the Trump tax cuts, a new voting rights act and an ObamaCare expansion are off the table. The desperately needed federal stimulus probably won’t happen. But that doesn’t mean that no deals can be made.

Biden has to come up with legislative initiatives that will help the country without helping the Democrats. That is all McConnell will permit.  

One great tragedy of contemporary American politics is that the coal and petroleum industries have been so successful in persuading millions of Americans that climate change either is not happening or is not caused by human activity. The techniques of lying and distortion are largely copied from the earlier tactics of the tobacco industry, which for decades obfuscated the link between smoking and lung cancer. Trump continues to suppress the truth within the federal government itself.

So, the two political parties do not compete with one another for solutions, as they compete for solutions to unemployment. A climate bill is a top priority for 54 percent of Democrats and 30 percent of independents but only 16 percent of Republicans. So Democrats gain few votes by proposing solutions. Most Americans who care about the climate are already reliable Democratic voters.

In this context, though, the political insignificance of climate change could be good news. It means that Biden won’t be rewarded for addressing it. McConnell, who has said that he believes in human-caused global warming, can afford to make a deal here.

The Green New Deal, in some form, is a fine idea. Public investment to promote energy efficiency could reduce the nation’s carbon footprint while creating a lot of high-paying blue-collar jobs. But that virtue is now a deal-killer. It would make a lot of struggling voters beholden to the Democrats.

On the other hand, consider a Green Manhattan Project — a term that was actually introduced by a Republican, retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Whatever the Paris Climate Accords may say, fossil fuel consumption won’t go down and stay down until there are cheap green alternatives. China, India and other developing economies won’t abandon coal until a green alternative is handed to them on a platter. That will require massive research investment — far more than the tiny increase that Alexander proposed. 

The astoundingly fast progress on a COVID vaccine has shown what can be accomplished by sustained, well-funded research. Private philanthropy is supporting clean energy research now, but not at nearly the scale that the federal government, which can borrow money at near-zero rates, can afford. Did you know that Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill included $90 billion in green energy research, which made it cheaper than almost anyone had hoped and reduced American carbon emissions at an unprecedented rate? Research funding is low visibility. That’s why Republicans can afford to let it happen.

Biden ought to propose an immense new, well-funded federal research center. It should be located in Kentucky. And named after Mitch McConnell. 

Andrew Koppelman, John Paul Stevens Professor of Law at Northwestern University, is the author of “Gay Rights vs. Religious Liberty? The Unnecessary Conflict (Oxford University Press, 2020). Follow him on Twitter @AndrewKoppelman.

Tags Biden Bill Clinton Climate change Donald Trump Lamar Alexander Mitch McConnell Newt Gingrich Obama Political positions of Mitch McConnell Republican Party

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