Obama v. Clinton: Who's Greener?

Published on
by
The Nation

Obama v. Clinton: Who's Greener?

If you're a political junkie like me, all you can think about is the primary and the general election beyond. Can you remember a primary season so dynamic and volatile, so dramatic, so filled with hope and trepidation and the stirrings of something historic? I can't decide if I love it or I'm going to have an ulcer by November. Today I want to take a look at the Dem candidates. Do green issues offer a way to differentiate them? A way to help wavering primary voters decide which way to go? Sorry, but not really. In terms of climate/energy policy proposals, there's not a whole lot of distance between Obama and Clinton. On this issue as on so many others, they both followed Edwards' early lead and ended up with strong, ambitious plans. Both would substantially cut greenhouse gas emissions and boost clean energy; both pitch sustainability as an issue of shared sacrifice and economic opportunity; both have an impressive grasp of the policy details. Some resources:

  • My analysis of Clinton's plan is here, of Obama's here.
  • A more thorough factsheet on Clinton's green record is here; Obama's here.
  • An interview with Clinton on green subjects is here; Obama here.

I'll look at the merits of some of their proposals in subsequent posts; for now I want to focus on what differentiates them. Thing is, there isn't much. There are episodes in their respective pasts that give pause. Clinton burned all those tires (long story). As a Democratic power broker and high-powered lawyer of long standing, she's been cozy with some fairly unsavory corporate players, from Alcoa to Wal-Mart. Obama, on the other hand, is an Illinois pol. That means he is, by necessity, a little friendlier with coal, ethanol, and nuclear interests than greens might like. Those allegiances led him to vote for the monstrosity that was the Energy Act of 2005, a porkfest that funneled subsidies to all three interest groups (Clinton voted against it). Early last year, he pushed legislation boosting liquid coal. (When greens threw a fit he backed off somewhat, making clear that liquid coal is kosher only if it meets low-carbon fuel standards.) As the NYT exhaustively documents, he gets big campaign contributions from Exelon, a nuclear outfit based in Illinois; his campaign adviser David Axelrod once consulted for the company. There is, however, no smoking gun of quid pro quo in either's career, and both are well-regarded by greens. Various commentators have blown past transgressions up to make the case that Clinton is secretly an earth-hating corporate sellout, or that Obama is, or that both are. Call me cynical, but all the above seems like relatively run-of-the-mill parochial politics to me. You'd be hard-pressed to find a politician that doesn't have compromises like this in his or her past. If you wanted pure green positions -- no new coal plants, no corn ethanol, no nukes under any circumstances -- I'm afraid your hopes died with the Edwards campaign (or the Kucinich campaign ... is that one dead yet?). Between the two remaining Dems, neither their histories nor their campaign proposals yield an obvious green favorite. It comes down to these questions:

  1. Who will be more effective at getting a green agenda past the many obstacles it faces?
  2. Who will do more to help downticket races and usher more Democrats into Congress?

There's been a lot of chatter about "theories of change" this election, but if you ask me, personal style matters a hell of a lot less than the number of reliable votes in Congress. So who'll get more downticket Dems elected? I think, as his recent endorsement by a string of red-state Dems attests, Obama will. He's got broader appeal with the Independents and wavering Republicans that will make the difference in close Congressional races. So in the end, if I was forced at gunpoint to pick the greener Dem this election, it would be Obama, but only based on second-order effects, and only barely. By far the larger story this season is that both Democratic choices are advancing a green agenda substantially more ambitious than what was proposed by Kerry, Gore, or Clinton. It's hard for green Democrats to go wrong this year.

David Roberts

David Roberts is the senior staff writer at Grist.org, an online journal of green politics and culture. He blogs there daily, even obsessively, mainly on politics and energy.

Share This Article

More in: