The XL Pipeline has become the Democrats’ version of immigration reform. In both cases, the common-sense policy — yes to both — is widely popular in the country at large. In both cases, a significant portion of the party as yet undecided is in favor of going forward. In some cases — Big Labor for the Democrats; pipeline and business interests for the GOP — key interest groups are extremely invested in moving ahead. Yet in both cases a loud element, nearly irrational on the topic, refuses to give way. They produce a series of ever-changing, a-factual excuses. Whether it is an easily debunked anti-immigration study on Hispanics’ IQ or, as The Post editorial board puts it, “a series of unlikely assumptions” from environmental advocates, the opponents come across looking like the worst caricature of themselves. (Republicans are nativists, Democrats are anti-growth.)
There is a major difference between the two, of course. In the case of the XL Pipeline the president can act alone, without Congress and without horse-trading or compromise. In fact, he’s required to act (one way or another). On immigration reform, one sees the tricky business of legislating, even if there is a positive reaction to the policy effort. Some proponents don’t agree it is a top priority. Others think the timing isn’t right. It is easy, even after the policy merits are largely agreed upon, to get hung up. (For one thing, it is not a binary policy choice but a question of what sort of policy the GOP wants to embrace.)
In the case of the XL Pipeline, the president seems oddly paralyzed. For a guy who unilaterally changed his signature health-care law multiple times and rewrote immigration law without Congress, he has on the pipeline gone to the State Department not once but twice looking for cover. So why the angst?
As the former energy secretary put it, this is not a scientific question; it is a political one. You’d think it would be a slam dunk. He should want to show that he, unlike those Republicans, you know, “believes in science.” He is forever pivoting to jobs, worrying aloud about the inequality gap and fretting about low wages. All of these factors lean in favor of approving the pipeline. Yet in this White House the left must be soothed. The temperature of Hollywood and Silicon Valley elites must be monitored around the clock. This is the White House (and increasingly the party) of university professors, glossy fashion magazine editors, racial and ethnic advocacy leaders and, of course, public employees (who don’t get anything much out of the pipeline). The money and the energy in the party is with the anti-pipeline forces. Hence, the president is conflicted.
I suspect the president will eventually have to capitulate to reason — and/or to the tears of red-state Democrats. However, the difficulty he is having and the agonizing process he is going through should suggest a fundamental conflict between his elite loyalty and his working-man appeal on inequality. This is how the Democratic Party faltered in the 1970s — the elites of the Democratic Party wound up offending what then became known as the “Reagan Democrats.” The latter on a slew of issues (on welfare, crime, abortion, the misery index, U.S. decline in the world, etc.) felt ill-served by their party. Luckily for the GOP in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was there to scoop up the disaffected Democrats with an optimistic message that offered economic and cultural refuge from the liberal wrecking ball that had swung through these voters lives.
So too, then, should the XL Pipeline, even if the president eventually capitulates to reason, be a signal to the GOP. A pro-energy, pro-jobs, pro-growth agenda aimed squarely at the squeezed middle class may come very much in handy. Obama wants to give health care to people who don’t want to work? Then the GOP can be the party that wants to create energy jobs, allow your kids to go to good schools and champion 2-year accreditation programs.
The GOP might think about that — and hope the Democrats in 2016 run a darling of the hedge funds, Hollywood actors and foreign royals. It would be quite a match up.