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What went wrong for cap-and-trade?

at 09:05 AM ET, 04/21/2011

Climate hawks are trying to pinpoint where they went wrong in their campaign to combat global warming. Brad Plumer rather sensibly suggests that they’re overlooking the possibility that the problem wasn’t tactical deficiencies on the part of the green movement, but rather the result of things just not working out on the issue. I think that’s mostly correct, but would add that trying to understand what happened to cap-and-trade by looking specifically at the cap-and-trade debate is almost certainly the wrong way to go about it. Rather, cap-and-trade, like many other issues, is a casualty of larger forces driving our politics.

A few years ago, cap-and-trade was, if not a consensus position in the Republican Party, then at least one with substantial support. John McCain had his own plan — a plan he continued to promote through the 2008 election — and he wasn’t, by any means, fighting a lonely battle. In fact, one of his co-sponsors was then-Sen. Barack Obama. In the states, a number of Republican governors were also pursuing cap-and-trade plans, including Tim Pawlenty, who’s now running for president and has denounced his efforts to fight climate change as a terrible mistake.

So the question has to be how the Republican Party swung from a position of partial support for efforts to address global warming to unified opposition. But you won’t find the answer by looking into environmental politics. After all, the same thing happened to the individual mandate in health care, which went from being a Republican position in the 1990s and 2000s to a policy Republicans considered an unconstitutional monstrosity in 2010, and deficit-financed stimulus, which Republicans agreed with in 2009 but turned against in 2010. This “you’re for it so we’re against it” phenomenon is increasingly common in politics, and not limited to any one issue. Cap-and-trade is, for now, a casualty of the way party polarization has become policy polarization. And no one one has yet developed a reliable strategy for interrupting that process.

 
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