Reuters/Larry Downing
Reuters/Larry Downing

With Obama set to release controversial EPA rules on existing power plants — touching off an enormously consequential battle — Republicans are telegraphing a two-pronged attack on vulnerable Dems. They will point to the new regulations and decry both Obama job-crushing big government and Obama rule by fiat. (Careful readers will note that Obama is central to both.) Incumbent Dems are powerless to halt the unchecked, regulation-crazed president from doing an end run around Congress, so vote for a GOP Senate.

With Congressional leaders discussing strategy with the White House, some Democrats are pushing for an aggressive, party-wide approach that treats this fight as an opportunity, rather than another occasion to play defense. An aggressive response, goes this line of thinking, would allow Dems to try to reframe a battle over government on more favorable terms, by casting Republicans as ideologically incapable of offering solutions to major challenges facing the country.

Dems can also challenge the “rule by fiat” argument by turning GOP arguments about enforcing the law against them: Are Republicans saying the President shouldn’t enforce the Clean Air Act?

“This is an opportunity, and it’s really important that we engage it full throttle,” Dem Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a senior party strategist who is one of those pushing for an aggressive response, told me today. “Republicans can only gain traction if there is a timid response.”

Van Hollen says Dems are discussing ways of turning the economic argument in their favor, by talking about the economic opportunities clean energy offers. He added the American people believe climate change is a long term problem facing the country that must be solved, and that voters will appreciate which party is trying to solve that problem and which isn’t.

“The public has a growing recognition that carbon pollution is hurting public health and is imposing large costs on local communities as a result of extreme weather events,” Van Hollen said. “The public recognizes that this is impacting the country and imposing economic costs right now. More and more people will see this as an economic opportunity to transition to a cleaner fuel economy that will bring lots and lots of jobs.”

But at a time of high economic anxiety and pessimism, and amid a recovery that is still sluggish after six years under Obama, won’t Republicans have an opening to bolster their argument that this represents more job-crushing government, particularly since these rules confer no visible immediate benefits?

“There’s no doubt Republicans will have the traditional bumper-sticker attacks on this policy,” Van Hollen allowed. “That’s why it’s important that nationally, Democrats engage on this and point out that failure to act will impose large costs. The broader context here is that the public is in the mood for serious responses to serious challenges. The public will see the Republican response to this as more complaining about other people’s solutions without putting their own solutions on the table.”

The GOP failure to offer solutions, Van Hollen added, opens the door for Dems to point out that the President is required by the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon emissions in the interests of the public — and use this as another data point in the case that the GOP has lurched to the right.

“If they refuse to put their own proposal on the table, and only complain about the president’s solution, then clearly they are saying we should ignore the Clean Air Act,” Van Hollen said, “even though historically that has been a bipartisan objective.” (See Jonathan Cohn’s excellent primer.)

Some top Republicans, such as John Boehner, proclaim they are not qualified to talk about the science of climate change, while immediately dismissing any solutions as job-killers. Thus the EPA battle can also be used to amplify the case that today’s GOP is hostile to science — which, as Ron Brownstein points out, is another way in which GOP  leaders are hostage to an intransigent, backward looking base — a potential turnoff to moderates and suburban swing voters.

As Lucia Graves points out in a good piece, the Virginia gubernatorial contest showed it is possible for Dems to win tough races on difficult turf despite a strong stance on climate, suggesting the politics of coal may be shifting. But red state Dems may prove too skittish to agree. They are running on even tougher turf — particularly in places like Kentucky and Louisiana, where energy battles are already underway — and it’s likely some will use the rules as another occasion to distance themselves from Obama.

“You’re going to have some regional differences on the issue,” Van Hollen conceded. Let’s hope that isn’t too much of an understatement.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.