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Why Biden’s Climate Optimism Is Smart Politics

It’s morning in America, and the sun is shining on our photovoltaic panels.

A door opening onto nature.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Campaign strategists and political consultants have a lot of folk theories that guide their work, some of which are even true. One common one is that the more optimistic candidate wins, especially in presidential races: Figures such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama who painted a bright vision of the future with a smile on their faces triumphed over their more dour opponents. Some political science research backs it up: One study examined candidates’ rhetoric over four decades of campaigns and found “the candidate who was more a pessimistic ruminator lost 9 of 10 times.”

This presents a problem for those who want candidates to make climate change advocacy a key part of their campaigns (and make promises they’ll have to keep once they take office). If candidates want to be optimistic, they may shy away from talking too much about a topic that can be disturbing, with the potential of global catastrophe always looming.

But we’re seeing the glimmers of something interesting in the current election. Now it’s the forces of the fossil fuel status quo who sound pessimistic, while those advocating more aggressive climate action are the optimistic ones.

This is clearly a conscious choice on the part of the Biden campaign and its allies. Using the Inflation Reduction Act and its climate investments as the evidence, they’re telling a story in which the administration is striding confidently into a better future, creating jobs and cleaning the air at the same time. Pro-Biden political action committees are airing ads (see here, here, or here) featuring sweeping drone shots of wind turbines and solar arrays, and slow-motion scenes from high-tech factories where good strong Americans are doing satisfying work for good pay, all while stirring music plays in the background. It’s morning in America, and the sun is shining on our photovoltaic panels.

The $80 million that the group Climate Power is planning to spend on ads for Biden, to take one example, may not blanket the airwaves from now to November, but it’s still a significant amount devoted to telling a feel-good climate story, even if that story is only a partial one. If that’s what will motivate voters more than encouraging them to marinate in bad news about rising temperatures and CO2 emissions, that’s what we can expect candidates to do.

And the contrast with Biden’s opponent is striking. These days, Donald Trump is less likely to call climate change a hoax invented by the Chinese government (as he used to), and more likely to simply dismiss it as nothing to worry about. But when it comes to anything involving clean energy, his rhetoric turns dark and foreboding. He has a long and weird obsession with the supposed horror of wind turbines, which he believes cause cancer, kill innumerable birds, and are “driving whales crazy.” He recently told a group of oil executives, “I hate wind.” Clearly.

When talk turns to electric cars, Trump is just as grim, painting them as nightmarish misery-mobiles for both those condemned to drive them and the workers who won’t get to build them. “The cars don’t go far, they cost too much, and they’re all made in China,” he says, and “if I don’t get elected, it’s going to be a bloodbath” for the whole auto industry. At the press conference he held after being convicted on 34 felony counts, he got barely a minute into his remarks before going off on EVs: “They want to stop you from having cars with their ridiculous mandates that make it impossible for you to get a car or afford a car; make it very possible for China to build all of our cars.” If ever there was a “pessimistic ruminator,” it’s Trump.

You don’t have to be planning to buy an EV this year to be more attracted to Biden’s optimistic picture of American workers building them than Trump’s nightmarish vision of automotive dystopia. And even if some portion of the population cheers when they hear Trump promising to “Drill, drill, drill,” it’s now the forces of the status quo that sound pessimistic when it comes to energy, denying that the country is capable of innovation and adaptation. We have to just keep doing what we’re doing, they say, because we can’t have anything better.

If there’s a risk of being too optimistic in a campaign, it might be that it saps the urgency from the climate issue and produces a bias toward easy, low-cost policy solutions rather than hard choices. But the Biden administration’s record — which though far from perfect includes both crowd-pleasing spending programs and stricter regulation of emissions that have produced strong opposition — suggests that what matters most is whether a president and the people in their administration care about the climate at all.

As Heatmap’s Jeva Lange has explained, the fact that few voters respond “climate change” when asked to name the country’s most pressing problem doesn’t mean they don’t believe it’s important. And if you convince a voter that cleaner energy is a worthwhile goal to pursue, does it matter if she’s thinking more about job opportunities and lower electric bills than about reducing emissions?

It also wouldn’t be a bad thing if people came to see the issue as a contrast between the future and the past, innovative thinking and hidebound fear of change. Two decades ago, Mark Schmitt coined one of those pithy bits of insight political writers are always searching for when he wrote that in a campaign, “It’s not what you say about the issues, it’s what the issues say about you.” His example was John McCain’s advocacy for campaign finance reform, which wasn’t at the top of the voters’ priority list but communicated that McCain was a principled reformer unafraid of taking on the powerful.

In the same way, advocacy for clean energy can help candidates build an optimistic image even apart from the policy debate over whether and how the country should decarbonize. If all those ads with gleaming solar farms and humming factory floors lead people to associate the climate issue with innovation and hope rather than deprivation and misery (as Trump and others would have it), then more and more candidates may want to make that part of their image, too. And the chances of positive policy change will only increase.

Paul Waldman profile image

Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is an MSNBC columnist, co-host of the Boundary Issues podcast, and author of The Cross Section, a newsletter about politics. His latest book is White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy.


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