MIAMI — This city shouldn’t really be here, but it is, and the governor of Washington state shouldn’t really be here, but he was. The two have something to do with each other. Wednesday morning Jay Inslee was 11 floors up a sparkling new high-rise that sits on land that used to be water, and may be water again. Out the window, just over the blue-green Biscayne Bay, was Miami Beach, where roads have been raised a couple inches here, a couple feet there. Wearing moccasins, sockless, Inslee was prepping for his first Democratic presidential debate, which meant introducing himself to Americans, filling them with an overwhelming sense of dread, then making them excited about the future — all in the space of 60 seconds.
Towns burning. Fields flooding. But a chance — a last chance — to mobilize the country, to create 8 million jobs in clean energy, to spare our grandchildren from the worst of climate change.
“We lead the world,” Inslee finished, twirling a wrapped cough drop in his left hand, “and we’re going to lead the world in defeating the climate crisis.”
Fifty-six seconds. His campaign coterie was silent for a moment. Then, his wife of 46 years spoke up: “There’s a little forced optimism in that,” said Trudi Inslee, who met him in their high school Spanish class.
“It felt a little off,” agreed his campaign manager, Aisling Kerins.
Inslee cackled. “A little off? So you want a little more —”
“I dunno,” Kerins said. “Was there — ”
“Now you doubt the simple message of our entire campaign?” Inslee joked.
The campaign’s simple message is that we have a big problem, and the governor of Washington can fix that problem, because the governor of Washington would make it the No. 1 priority of his presidency. No one has ever done that before because the need to do so has never been so obvious to so many people. Nearly 60 percent of Americans now believe climate change is affecting their communities, according to the Pew Research Center; 3 out of 4 likely Iowa Democratic caucus voters want a candidate who recognizes that climate change is humanity’s greatest threat, according to a poll this month from CNN and the Des Moines Register.
And so the herd of Democrats running for the nomination are rolling out detailed plans to slow it down. They’re spouting florid language about how we must act, or else face some vague but certain apocalypse. No one’s plan or rhetoric yet matches the governor’s, who speaks of climate in terms of victory and defeat and this presidential race as the final opportunity to do something about it.
“This is our moment,” Inslee likes to say.
Can it also be his?
The climate candidate landed Sunday, on the hottest June 23 ever recorded in Miami. On Monday he went to the lip of the Everglades, to tout his "Freedom From Fossil Fuels" plan over the drone of airboat motors.
South Florida is “ground zero in the attack on America” from climate change, Inslee said, although really South Florida is ground zero of America’s attack on South Florida. It used to be a river of grass, with a coastal ridge of limestone that gave settlers a toehold. Epic dredging and landfilling followed, then eventually a ghastly sprawl of asphalt. Now, nature is retaliating.
“Florida ecosystems are reeling from urban runoff, habitat loss,” says Everglades advocate Matthew Schwartz, who joined Inslee on a short boat trip at the announcement. “When you add climate change on top of it, it is kind of the coup de grace.” Schwartz was pleased to have a presidential candidate on the water, talking about the complexities of ecosystems.
It was a natural place for the governor to be. Inslee, 68, is a tall and solid man, rugged-seeming but polished-looking, like his bones are made of granite, and his skin is made of marble. There’s a lispy warble in his voice that is disarming and frontiersy. He is a son of inlets and valleys. His love of the natural world comes from growing up in Washington state, and his urgency to save it comes from his three grandchildren.
As a congressman in 2003, Inslee testified in the Senate on the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and what to do about it.
We need optimism, he said then.
In 2008 he co-wrote a book outlining a “new Apollo project” for clean energy, modeled on the moonshot.
We need boldness, he said then.
And on Tuesday he toured Miami’s Little Haiti, talking to residents and business owners about how the elevation of their community — appealingly high, compared with its surroundings — has started to price them out. This was eye-opening to him.
“I knew about the saltwater intrusion in the Everglades and the threat to the drinking water in Miami,” Inslee said, “but I never thought about a culture being assaulted.” He saw a connection between Florida and his state, on the other side of the country, where Seattle plans to construct smoke shelters for when the air quality is made noxious by worsening wildfires.
On Wednesday morning, the day of the debate, Inslee took a four-mile walk. He prepped for his brief moments in the sun, trying to balance alarmism and optimism. On personalized stationery he doodled a sketch of himself as a smiling alligator, wearing a tie at a podium, on the debate stage. He took a brief nap. He did a hit on MSNBC, where host Ari Melber reminded him that 73 percent of Americans had never heard of Jay Inslee. If he was going to get invited to more debates, that would have to change. And he wouldn’t have much time.
The debate venue, built on the landfilled waterways of yore, is across the street from a private college called — get this — Atlantis University. Backstage the 10 campaigns were crammed in individual cinder-block bunkers, outfitted with TVs so staffs could grit their teeth while watching their bosses flail.
Inslee wore an evergreen tie, a Washington apple pin, a cheap watch and a ring that belonged to his grandfather. His pre-debate ritual is to listen to “Dueling Banjos,” because it revs him up. He had two goals: Claim the high ground on climate and brag about his state’s record of progressive accomplishment, including the highest minimum wage and the first public health insurance option in the country. And, also, to wrap up every point by the time the yellow light flashed, signaling 15 seconds left.
Inslee was not the first candidate to mention climate change by name. That was Elizabeth Warren, who was called on first by moderators, and in her answer on the economy tied climate to green jobs and manufacturing. During a question on income inequality, Inslee head-faked toward his issue with an allusion to wind turbines, but couched it in affection for labor unions and a promise to “put people to work in the jobs of the present and future.”
A few blocks over, at a watch party for Florida Democrats where some people wore “climate crisis” T-shirts, a woman named Holly Burke took notice of these moves.
“That’s what we want to see,” said Burke, deputy national press secretary of the League of Conservation Voters. “You don’t need a climate question to give a climate answer.” What might seem like a single issue was actually connected to every major one: public health, the economy, national security, immigration.
Inslee, stuck on one end of the stage, knew this as well as anyone, and at times seemed cheerfully exasperated about not getting a word in. In the final half hour of the debate, moderator Chuck Todd asked each of the 10 candidates to name the top geopolitical threat to the United States.
Climate change, said Beto O’Rourke.
Climate change, said Elizabeth Warren.
Climate change and nuclear proliferation, said Cory Booker.
Climate change and China, said Julián Castro.
Donald Trump, said Inslee, drawing the biggest audience applause, and a few next-day headlines.
When it came time for final statements, the governor’s came out a little less polished than he prepared, though no less genuine and targeted.
“I have three grandchildren, we love them all,” he said. “When I was thinking about whether to run for president, I made a decision. I decided that on my last day on Earth, I wanted to look them in the eye and tell them I did everything humanly possible to protect them from the ravages of the climate crisis. And I know to a moral certainty, if we do not have the next president who commits to this as the top priority, it won’t get done.”
Afterward, the candidates were swept into the media spin room, where journalists swarm to ask questions they’ve already answered many times. Inslee attracted a moderate amount of media but found himself occasionally swept up in an eddy around Booker or beached on a human levee surrounding Warren. Number crunchers concluded that “humanity’s greatest threat” got about eight minutes of direct conversation during the debate. Inslee had the least amount of speaking time of any candidate.
Instead of seeing a defeat in his lack of exposure, he saw victory.
“I got the most done in the least period of time,” Inslee reasoned on the car ride back to his lodging. “So that was a recognition of my efficiency.”
Forced optimism? Real optimism? Maybe when it comes to climate change — or a campaign for the presidency — there’s no difference.