Focus on climate change may not be enough for Inslee to stand out among 2020 Dems

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks, Friday, March 1, 2019, during a campaign event at A&R Solar in Seattle. Inslee announced that he will seek the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, mixing calls for combating climate change and highlights of his liberal record with an aggressive critique of President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced Friday he is running for president in 2020 with a focus on fighting climate change, but experts say he may struggle to differentiate himself in a growing field of liberal lawmakers with ambitious plans and compelling narratives who seem to share his sense of urgency about the planet’s future.

“We’re the first generation to feel the sting of climate change and the last that can do something about it,” Inslee said in a video posted online Friday morning. “We went to the moon and created technologies that have changed the world. Our country’s next mission must be to rise up to the most urgent challenge of our time: defeating climate change.”

Inslee broached the idea of a single-issue climate change candidacy in an interview with The Atlantic published in January, but the game he entered Friday is not the same as the one he was eying at the time. All the Democratic senators running for president have already thrown their support behind the Green New Deal resolution and several address the issue regularly at events.

“With half the field embracing the Green New Deal, there’s not a lot of wind in his sails on this issue,” said Todd Belt, director of the political management program at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management and co-author of “The Post-Heroic Presidency: Leveraged Leadership in an Age of Limits.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders has highlighted climate change as a central issue in his campaign, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand called it “the greatest threat to humanity we have” this week. Both are among the sponsors of the Green New Deal resolution introduced last month, as are fellow 2020 candidates Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Amy Klobuchar.

The non-binding resolution calls for enormous changes to the nation’s economy and infrastructure reduce carbon emissions. It has been savaged by Republicans as a multi-trillion-dollar socialist wish list that reveals how far outside the mainstream Democrats have become, but supporters say it is intended to start an important national conversation.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., told the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference Thursday that “Chick-fil-A stock will go way up” if Democrats win because they are “trying to get rid of all the cows.” The resolution makes no reference to cows, but a fact sheet released and later withdrawn by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s office mentioned “farting cows” as a source of carbon emissions that would hard to eliminate.

Climate change is a growing concern among the Democratic base and the general public, but there is no evidence yet that there is a significant voting bloc for which it is a determinative factor.

“For most primary voters, it’s one of a group of issues that are very important when we’re trying to find a candidate who can beat Donald Trump,” said Democratic strategist Scott Ferson.

Inslee should know he faces an uphill climb after a carbon tax ballot initiative he supported in his own state failed on a 56 percent to 44 percent vote in November.

“It may be hard to run as the environmental candidate when his own state just rejected a green initiative at the recent election,” said Paul Burstein, a professor at the University of Washington and author of “American Public Opinion, Advocacy, and Policy in Congress: What the Public Wants and What It Gets.”

With many economists predicting a recession in 2020, Belt cautioned drastic action on climate change could become an even harder sell politically if the public becomes more sensitive to the job losses and economic costs that Republicans say would result.

“By this time next year, the economy could be a really big issue,” he said.

A true single-issue campaign carries inherently limited appeal, but nothing is stopping Inslee from expanding his platform to other issues. Although his campaign website focuses heavily on his handling of climate issues, it does touch upon his record on education, the economy, and infrastructure.

“This is a very, very narrow thing to run on It’s going to get people’s attention and then he’s got to move quickly to something more general,” Ferson said.

Inslee—who has overseen a strong state economy while implementing a raft of progressive policies on issues like minimum wage, family leave, and equal pay—falls on the more liberal end of the spectrum of Democratic candidates. The battle for support of the party’s progressive base is already fierce, though, and it is stacked with significantly more high-profile candidates.

“It’s a very left-leaning field of candidates, with the exception of Amy Klobuchar,” Belt said.

If there is relatively little competition at this point to represent the more centrist faction of the Democratic Party in the primaries, it may be because potential contenders are still waiting to see what former Vice President Joe Biden does. Biden said Tuesday his family wants him to run, but he will make his decision sometime in the second quarter of 2019.

With 11 months until the first primary votes are cast and voters still unfamiliar with most of the candidates, it is not yet clear which wing of the party has an edge. Biden consistently tops early polls, with Sanders close behind, but Klobuchar typically falls in the low single digits below some of the more liberal options.

“Moderate” is a relative term, and Klobuchar and Biden would normally be seen as firmly left-of center. They may benefit in the long run from Republicans hammering the Democratic field as extremists who want to take away hamburgers and airplanes.

“By Republicans talking about the people who are socialists, they’re positioning Biden or Klobuchar, should they be the nominee, in the public’s minds as moderates,” Ferson said.

In 2016, Sanders was the only candidate espousing socialist ideas and rhetoric. There could be at least a half dozen candidates adopting those views to some degree or another in 2020, and Belt expects white males like Inslee will face a disadvantage appealing to an increasingly diverse base. If candidates have similar positions on climate change and other issues, factors like personality and life story take a larger role.

“This is a time of identity politics, especially in the Democratic base, and a lot of voters will be looking for someone who looks like them instead of just thinks like them,” he said.

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Hard as it may be to believe 600+ days before Election Day, time is running out for lesser-known candidates like Inslee to get in the game. The announced candidates are already competing for money, media attention, and staff, and that struggle will only get harder as the field grows.

“Biden is in a category all on his own, but for most others, there’s going to be one day we’re going to wake up and say, ‘Oh, yesterday was the last day,’” Ferson said.

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