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Jay Inslee hopes a singular focus on climate will get him to the White House

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee talks to reporters after taking part in the signing of a climate agreement with British Columbia Premier John Horgan, on Feb. 8 at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee talks to reporters after taking part in the signing of a climate agreement with British Columbia Premier John Horgan, on Feb. 8 at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has elevated the issue of climate change to the top of a national conversation with her advocacy of a Green New Deal. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is about to test whether the climate issue can become a singular springboard to the presidency.

Inslee is on the cusp of declaring his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic nomination — at times, he speaks about running in the present tense — and makes clear that his intention is to build his campaign almost entirely around a message highlighting the urgency of dealing with threats caused by the changing climate.

“I think that a candidacy by me would have two pillars. One, to put climate change as a paramount duty of the country and to mobilize the country to a higher calling,” Inslee said while attending the winter meeting of the National Governors Association (NGA) over the weekend. “And executive experience. I think there may be an appetite for that.”

The opening two months of the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign have been almost all about senators. Half a dozen members of the Senate are in, and several more are in the wings. Missing so far are the governors, but that’s likely to change soon.

They would bring executive experience and non-Washington credentials to a contest that so far has been defined largely by candidates who make their living inside the Beltway. In the past, those qualities have played to the advantage of governors who have run for president. But it has been more than a dozen years since the Democrats had a governor who became a serious candidate for the nomination.

Inslee’s entrance into the race could come in the next week. Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper has been scouting venues for his anticipated announcement. Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe is itching to run but still weighing his prospects. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, the current NGA chair, has been in and out of Iowa and New Hampshire taking soundings for months.

Hickenlooper is a business-friendly Democrat who eschews negative advertising. McAuliffe, too, is pro-business with a centrist philosophy and relishes political combat. Bullock, who has a reformer’s sensibility, was twice elected in a red state (the second time in 2016, when Donald Trump was winning Montana handily).

Candidates already are wrestling with how to talk about the climate issue, beyond generalities. The promotion by Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) of a Green New Deal resolution with ambitious goals has forced other candidates to react. Few are opposed to the idea of urgent action, but many have hesitated to embrace the goals as outlined in the most expansive versions of the proposal.

The Green New Deal “has been very beneficial” in putting climate change “very much on the map of public discussion,” Inslee said. Just as significantly, he added, it has “appropriately raised the ambition level and the scope and scale of what is necessary,” and it has helped to bring together issues of environmental justice.

“It’s an aspirational statement obviously and not a policy document,” he said of the Green New Deal. “So guys like me are now going to fill in the policy, which I will do if I become a candidate.”

Other Democratic candidates list climate change as one of their main issues. Inslee said he would go further. “I would be the only one to say this is the primary, foremost, mission of the United States,” he said. “The way I categorize it is that it has to become the organizing principle throughout the federal government.”

At the same time, Inslee isn’t prepared to make elaborate promises about a timetable as swift as some environmental activists are calling for. “You have to commit yourself to having a just transition and not just a transition,” he said. “And I’m serious about this. . . . You do have to realize these transitions are not overnight. We are not going to shut down tomorrow the oil and gas industry.”

The goal of a carbonless economy by 2030, outlined in some versions of the Green New Deal, seems unrealistic to Inslee. In that time, he said, the country can put into place ambitious measures to combat climate change, but the full results would be realized only later. “We do know that by midcentury, early midcentury, we have to be a substantially decarbonized economy.”

Despite the appeal of the climate message within the party and to many voters, some Democrats are skeptical about its ultimate power in a general election.

The fear, expressed privately, is that for some unknown percentage of voters, concerns about their own economic future make them skeptical about the fallout from transformative changes in the economy.

As with all the other candidates, practical obstacles lie in the paths of the governors. Raising money is one. Finding a route through the early states and on to the finals is challenging. Performing well in debates is never a given, nor is surviving the scrutiny and vetting process that presidential politics entails.

Breaking out from the crowd is another challenge, which is one reason Inslee thinks his particular focus on climate issues will be helpful. He sees the climate message as one that could motivate and excite voters, especially younger Americans, and allow him to do what a little-known governor did four decades ago when Jimmy Carter went from dark horse to the White House, and possibly do it more swiftly, with the help of social media.

“Now that’s not a certainty,” he said. “It’s going to take creativity, a little bit of luck. We’ll see what catches fire.”