My three wishes for America
Can climate change become the defining characteristic of the next (yes, next) president of the United States?
A friend wrote me a few weeks back after the Paris withdrawal, in exasperation over the tragic state of climate affairs in Washington, and said, "We need to get some climate change advocates in Congress."
I responded, "No, we need to get a climate change champion to run for president in 2020."
And now, after the surreal political events of last week in Washington, this seems like the right time to raise the issue, since the next presidential election cycle began with Sen. John McCain's "thumbs down" Thursday.
If President Donald Trump has demonstrated one thing to all, it is the absolute power of his office, especially when unencumbered by the established norms of acceptable presidential behavior. No matter how debased the office of the presidency becomes over his remaining three years, at this point, the presidency remains the essential prize of the climate movement.
Imagine how you would be feeling, sitting here today, if the president of the United States were Michael Bloomberg instead of Trump? You might not agree with him on everything, but you would be pretty confident that he would be well-focused on going after the BIG thing.
Maybe next cycle, Bloomberg — representing the Republican wing of the Republican Party — mounts a primary challenge against Trump. If I were to be granted three wishes for our country, a Bloomberg primary challenge would be the first. Bloomberg vs. Trump in the Republican primaries! That would be a good one! Climate definitely would be on the agenda.
My second wish would be that the historical reflex of the American electorate holds true to form during the next election cycle. It is said that American voters vote on personality and they favor the candidate whose personal characteristics deviate the most from the current president. Certainly, recent history gives credence to the idea: Think of patrician Bush 41 giving way to gregarious Clinton to good ol' boy Bush 43 to cerebral Obama to — Trump.
The defining characteristic of Trump and his presidency is that it always was, and always will be, only about him. Substantive issues are only important to him as a vehicle to his personal ambition. Even his most rabid supporters should be getting that by about now. Accordingly, the electorate in 2020 should yearn for a candidate who is running for president because they truly, deeply and completely believe in doing something about a substantive issue of compelling importance.
The single most important question to all presidential aspirants will be, "Why do you want to be president of the United States?"
That is where my third wish begins — with the right answer to THE question — but the answer needs to come from the right candidate.
There are some things I know. My climate champion candidate needs to be willing to get in the Democratic contest early, be persuasively articulate and be perceived as viable by the media and the political establishment. Failure on any of these criteria means we are wasting our time. A climate change candidate on the fringe, quite simply, won't be part of the political discussion, won't make it to the main stage and won't provoke a climate change discussion in the all-important primary debates.
But, you probably are asking, aren't all Democratic candidates likely to be "climate champions"?
You see, there is this problem with Democrats. They are serial do-gooders. They want to solve all of the world's problems simultaneously.
Sure, Obama, Clinton and Sanders were right as rain on environmental issues and perfectly "on message" all the time on climate, but each had a lot of other priorities as well. In the face of public indifference and the media's failure to grasp the transcendent importance of our issue relative to others, global warming just gets lost in the noise.
That is why we need a presidential candidate for whom climate change not only registers in their brain but burns in their heart — a candidate who believes so passionately in saving the planet that it pretty much is their only thing — the only thing they want to talk about; the only thing they will prioritize, the only thing that they are focused on.
We need a candidate who is like Steve Forbes talking about flat tax or Forrest Gump's friend Bubba talking about shrimp.
An ability to break out of the political scrum early is essential. The list of people lining up to run against Trump will be massive, in part because Trump has revolutionized the presidential selection pool.
Before 1960, to pick an arbitrary date as the start of the "modern era," anyone could be president of the United States so long as they were a naturally born, over 35, white male of Anglo-Saxon origin with significant time spent in public service. And, of course, they could not be Catholic or Jewish or LDS, but instead had to at least make a showing of being religiously observant in a "mainstream" Protestant faith.
Oh, yeah: And then there were the non-constitutionally based personal decorum requirements. Candidates had to be happily married, at least ostensibly, or widowed but certainly not divorced. They definitely had to be heterosexual, but not so heterosexually oversexed that they had at any time committed a marital indiscretion that had found it way into the public domain. And, of course, it would have been a disqualifier to having committed, or bragged of committing, sexual assault or said something really stupid about an American war hero of your own party, the pope or any and all past presidents.
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson previewed his run on SNL. Are we sure he was kidding? Oprah Winfrey says that she might run. Her reasoning is simple: if a second-rate TV personality such as Trump can be president, why can't a TV legend such as her qualify?
So, this we know: We need a climate change candidate who can shine alongside Oprah and the Rock.
What about a climate candidate from our industrial heartland? Let's face it, our candidate doesn't win unless they win back Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
What about an almost governor of California? More than one highly credible devoted climate advocates are lining up to succeed Jerry Brown in California. How about whoever fails in that race taking a shot at the Oval Office? Keep in mind that losing a bid for lower office does not foreclose a successful run for president. Abraham Lincoln went directly from losing a Senate election to winning the presidency; Richard Nixon went from losing … oh, ok, let's just skip the Nixon precedent.
And what other fields might this candidate arrive from: a university president; an NGO CEO; a retired general or flag officer; a Dimon-esque banking titan; one of our Bezosously successful entrepreneurs/media moguls or, perhaps, a true corporate CEO (that is, not a CEO poseur like Trump)?
Personally, even after Trump, I am a fan of recruiting our candidate from the private sector. Washington is too sclerotic to act decisively on climate without a jolt from a singularly focused outsider acting as Commander-in-Climate as well as Commander-in-Chief. Look how thoroughly Trump unnerved the Washington political establishment during his first six months. If his administration hadn't been so spectacularly inept, it might have gotten some real things done. Scary.
The purpose of this article is not to provide an answer to the climate change candidate question but to flag the need, the urgency and the fact that the field is wide open.
Time is running out for the planet, as it is running out for the climate movement, if we want to be a factor in the 2020 election.
Does anyone have any good ideas?
Or should we be asking Oprah how passionately she feels about the Earth's surpassing 400 ppm?