Election Fever

Following publication of Michael Tomasky’s review of Al Gore’s book The Assault on Reason (Penguin, 2007) in the September 27 issue, many readers sent questions about the current political situation to the New York Review Web site, nybooks.test, and to the Review itself. We publish here a selection from these letters, along with Michael Tomasky’s comments. The following text is one of a series of regular New York Review Web features in which contributors respond to readers’ questions. Other features can be found at nybooks.test/qa. —The Editors

Barack Obama
Barack Obama; drawing by David Levine

Q: Several readers have asked how Al Gore’s efforts to raise awareness about climate change will affect the 2008 campaign. Is global warming likely to be an important issue for the leading Democrats in the primaries? Now that Republicans too are talking about climate change, is there a sense that the Democratic position needs to be more forcefully articulated?

Michael Tomasky: Well, the need for Democratic positions to be more forcefully articulated is a given across the board.

Despite the attention surrounding Gore’s winning the Nobel this month, I doubt, alas, that climate change will be a leading issue either in the Democratic primaries or in the general election. It’s not a “signature” issue of any of the leading Democratic candidates, and the Republicans either believe it doesn’t exist as a problem or at the very least have to pretend that they believe that or risk offending their hard-core base. Not toeing the right-wing line on this carries a price: one evangelical conservative leader, Richard Cizik, has tried to press the evangelical movement to put global warming on its agenda but has met stiff opposition within his own organization, the National Association of Evangelicals. Finally, since climate change is unfolding over decades, it seems unlikely that it’s the kind of issue that can be pushed to the forefront by one signal event.

However, the fact that it is unlikely to be a leading issue is not to say that climate change will or should play no role in the general election. I think it would be very smart politics on the part of the Democratic nominee to force the Republican nominee to state for the record—in a debate, say—whether climate change is or is not a problem (and specifically a problem to which humans have contributed). If the Republican plays to his base and denies this, he’ll look crazy to centrist voters; if he plays to the middle and affirms it, he’ll anger the base. So it strikes me that it is an issue of political utility, if played right.

Substantively, assuming a Democratic president, my guess is that actually doing something about climate change is likely to be a second-term issue. Why? Because acting to slow it will require doing something pretty big, which will require spending an enormous amount of political capital, and that’s something I suspect a president will be unlikely to want to risk, especially given (and it is a given) that health care reform will come first. Also, action on climate change really requires the cooperation of Congress. This means two things: (1) the Democrats will need to improve their majorities (especially in the Senate) to do anything meaningful on climate change; (2) Representative John Dingell (D-Michigan) will need to retire, because he will take the auto industry position straight down the line, and he’s extremely powerful. Nancy Pelosi has tried to end-run Dingell on environmental issues, but…

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