Health Care Counts for Obama, Energy Doesn’t

By Kennedy Maize

There’s a new debate developing about the politics of  cap’n’trade v. health care: can the administration pass both health care legislation and climate legislation?  Alternatively, would failure of the administration’s health care initiative, whatever it ultimately looks like, make passage of energy legislation more likely?

The proposition that health care defeat will push the administration’s energy agenda won support from Republicans in a op-ed summary in a recent edition of the Washington Post. Steven F. Haward and Kenneth P. Green, resident scholars at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote, “Ironically, the difficulties of passing health-care reform may boost the chances that cap-and-trade legislation is revived and passed by the Senate. President Obama and Hill Democrats are going to need a major legislative victory and a way to change the subject.”

To my mind, that’s partisan baloney. On the other had, the administration’s supporters predictably argue that the administration can accomplish both. I’m equally skeptical. I predict that the White House and the Democratic congress will push for health care at the expense of energy legislation, and be prepared to rise-or-fall on health care.

Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, in the same article in the Washington Post’s Sunday Outlook section, suggested that the White House can have its climate cake and eat its health care desert as well. Garin said, “Passing energy reform isn’t any tougher because of the battle over health care. There is broad public support for an energy reform policy that reduces carbon emissions and promotes increased reliance on alternative and renewable energy. Americans believe it is urgent that we end our dependence on oil, especially imported oil, and see the development of alternative energy as offering real potential to create the next generation of American jobs.”

Both the GOP and Democrats’ line of reasoning suggest that, if the health care reform fails, the administration will turn its efforts to its energy and climate legislation and try to force that through Congress.

I don’t buy either argument.

First, it strikes me that the administration has drawn the proverbial political line in the sand over health care. The White House (and most Democrats) will spend every bit of political capital they have over passing health care reform legislation (regardless of the details, including the ‘public option’). They have got to get this done to survive the 2010 mid-term elections. It is crucial.

As for climate legislation – cap’n’trade – it isn’t crucial. Climate isn’t an issue that touches most Americans in any deep way. They understand health care and health insurance. I suspect they don’t understand, and don’t care about, the global climate, as most polls have consistently shown over the past few years.

The climate issue appeals to environmental activists, largely because it provides a rationale for causes they long-ago adopted, such as shutting down coal-fired power plants. Many of them would be devastated if it turned out – and I believe it will – that global warming is not a major environmental problem, as it turned out in the 1970s than global cooling wasn’t a problem and it turned out in the 1990s that acid rain was overblown. The greens, for the most past, don’t fear global warming. They welcome it, they want it.

But most ordinary folks don’t care about whether the climate is warming or cooling – and the figures on both sides are miniscule and marginal to most minds. What the heck does 0.1 degree mean to the average Marylander? All the hand-wringing reports of catastrophes-in-waiting simply don’t register. Why should they?

Health insurance and health care strikes home. Costs of insurance are soaring, coverage is problematic, and rationing already exists at every level. (I don’t have much of a dog in this fight, as I’m covered by Medicare, and even if Congress and the administration make changes to Medicare, it will be for future enrollees, not us already-covered geezers.)

Global energy and environmental legislation will not determine the legacy of the Obama administration. Health care will, and I believe the administration understands that. So I believe the administration will put all of its political gunpowder behind health care, to the neglect of cap’n’trade.

If the administration loses on health care, it could lose on all of its other initiatives, including climate and energy. A loss on health care is existential. A loss on climate is marginal.