Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)
Opinion writer

When you run for president as a Democrat, you have to provide fairly detailed policies on the key issues Democratic voters care about. In this cycle, there are indications that the most important priority for Democratic voters is climate change. Indeed, one analysis shows that at candidate events in Iowa, the only issue that citizens ask questions about more often than climate change is health care.

But so far, with a couple of exceptions like Jay Inslee and Beto O’Rourke, few of the candidates have offered much in the way of concrete plans on how to address climate change.

So it’s obviously of interest when the person leading in the polls drops hints about his yet-to-be-released climate plan. That’s what Joe Biden is now doing, but as Reuters reports, there’s a problem:

Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden is crafting a climate change policy he hopes will appeal to both environmentalists and the blue-collar voters who elected Donald Trump, according to two sources, carving out a middle ground approach that will likely face heavy resistance from green activists.

The backbone of the policy will likely include re-joining the United States with the Paris Climate Agreement and preserving U.S. regulations on emissions and vehicle fuel efficiency that Trump has sought to undo, according to one of the sources, Heather Zichal, who is part of a team advising Biden on climate change. She previously advised President Barack Obama.

The second source, a former energy department official also advising Biden’s campaign who asked not to be named, said the policy could also be supportive of nuclear energy and fossil fuel options like natural gas and carbon capture technology, which limit emissions from coal plants and other industrial facilities. [...]

The approach, which has not been previously reported, will set Biden apart from many of his Democratic rivals for the White House who have embraced much tougher climate agendas, like the Green New Deal calling for an end to U.S. fossil fuels use within ten years. That could make Biden a target of environmental groups and youth activists ahead of next year’s primary elections.

It’s probably too early to criticize this vague set of ideas until we see exactly what it entails. But there’s already cause for concern: the people who have been authorized to speak to the press about this are framing it explicitly as something Biden “hopes will appeal to both environmentalists and the blue-collar voters who elected Donald Trump.”

We’re not naive here. Of course candidates are going to consider how the policies they propose will be received by voters. But can you at least pretend that you first decided what the best policy would be, and only afterward set about determining the most effective way to sell it to the electorate?

Biden’s people are just coming out and saying that he has an existing election strategy — hold Democratic voters and poach conservative blue-collar white voters from Trump — and they’re fashioning his climate plan so it slots into that strategy.

And if one of the guiding principles of your climate plan is that it will appeal to blue-collar whites who voted for Trump, that’s going to dictate both the general approach and the specifics that are included. For example, environmental justice probably isn’t going to be featured too prominently.

I’m sure Biden doesn’t want to be tagged as some enviro-hippie whose hatred of fossil fuels burns with the heat of a thousand coal-fired power plants. He no doubt remembers what happened to Hillary Clinton, whose comment that we should deal with coal’s inevitable decline by helping people in communities affected by it was received far less warmly than Donald Trump’s lie that he’d bring all the coal jobs back.

But it’s pretty clear that Biden suffers from a common Democratic malady, one that produces a constant fear that taking policy positions they perceive to be too liberal will produce electoral disaster.

Biden says the right things about climate change when he’s speaking in general terms — for instance, he calls it an “existential threat.” And if he wants to make an argument that a slower approach is the one that he really thinks will work the best, or that it’s the outer limit of what can be passed through Congress, we can hear him out on those claims.

But if Biden is just saying that he wants to split the difference on the issue because that’s what he thinks won’t make blue-collar white people mad, he ought to come up with a better rationale.

Read more:

Joel Clement: Once again, the U.S. embarrasses itself on climate change

Eugene Robinson: We’re killing off our planet, and our enlightenment may come too late

Cindy McCain and Mark Udall: Congress must reach across the aisle and protect the Grand Canyon