Democrats don’t know how to tell environmentalist billionaire Tom Steyer to stop helping

We all have one: The well-meaning relative or friend who is perhaps so zealous in the pursuit of your best interests that they end up doing more harm than good in the process. Despite their best intentions, they end up making a bad situation worse. More often than not, you wish that they would just stop helping and, instead, maybe just write you a check.

For the Democrats, that’s Tom Steyer.

Following his merciful decision to pass on throwing millions into what would likely have been a contentious and ill-fated bid for the U.S. Senate in California, the former founder of the hedge fund Farallon Capital has decided instead to play the role of spoiler ahead of the 2016 presidential election. According to a report via The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, Steyer is setting up a Super PAC with the aim of attacking the 2016 GOP field, and the party’s eventual nominee, for their “climate deinalism.” “Or, if you prefer, for their climate ‘skepticism,’” Sargent wrote.

NextGen hopes to make this climate non-committalism a liability in both the Senate and presidential elections, in key swing states. The basic idea taking shape is to use the issue as a wedge between GOP base voters and moderates by casting GOP climate non-committalism as trapped in the past. To link GOP climate non-committalism to specific climate and environment-related events within states, localizing the issue. And to tie the GOP climate stance to special interests (the Koch brothers) and use that to sow doubts about the trustworthiness of the GOP candidates.

A model for this strategy: One of the only bright spots Democrats enjoyed in 2014, the Michigan Senate race. Democrat Gary Peters went on offense on climate in the manner described above, and won, in a race NextGen also invested in.

To be sure, NextGen spent huge money on a bunch of Senate races in 2014, and lost most of them. But NextGen hopes those expenditures merely laid the foundation for what will be a long game. And this time the map will look very different. While in 2014 Democrats were fending off “war on coal” attacks in many red southern and coal states, this time GOP Senators will be on defense in swing states carried by Obama, amid a presidential year electorate. Thus, the NextGen strategy also will have a positive component, emphasizing the health, economic, and environmental benefits of transitioning to clean energy, to energize core Dem voters, particularly millennials and socially liberal college educated whites.

First, before we get into the meat of this strategy and its potential efficacy, some minor quibbles with the linguistic parameters of this debate. Republicans are not “climate deniers” or “climate skeptics.” Those conservatives who remain unconvinced by the theory of anthropogenic global warming do not deny that there is, in fact, an infinitely complex series of interconnected systems that affect the Earth’s climate. In fact, they would contend that they have a greater appreciation for its complexities than do the Steyers of the world. The Medieval Warm Period was no Republican conspiracy, and the Precambrian Extinction was not engineered by the Koch brothers 523 million years prior to their births. Perhaps the softer term “non-committalism” is an attempt to acknowledge the fact that equating Republicans’ mistrust of the theory of AGW with those who reject the Holocaust’s legitimacy as a historical event is a bad way to foster dialogue. If that’s the kind of language Steyer’s acolytes will deploy in the effort to send a Clinton back into the White House, they will find that they alienate more voters than they energize.

Secondly, the well-funded effort to elevate the issue of climate change (or global warming, or whatever we call it 18 months from now) to a central national concern will be complicated by the fact that it is of paramount importance only for the left. For the rest of the country, this issue is merely one of many major pressing problems that they would like the federal government to address.

According to Pew Research Center data collected this year, anxiety surrounding the issue of climate change is skyrocketing among self-described Democrats but is only rising slightly among independents and has remained stable among Republicans over the last six years. Of the 23 issues Pew tested, none is as polarizing as is the subject of climate change. 54 percent of Democratic respondents view the climate as a major priority while only 15 percent of GOP respondents agree — a 39-point gap. Pew also found that the public’s concerns are far more generally in line with those of Republicans who do not view climate change/global warming to be an urgent priority for the federal government.


All this indicates that liberal Democratic partisans will be inspired by Steyer’s environmentalist campaign while a majority of moderates, independents, and most definitely Republicans will be turned off. Steyer is as likely to disaffect otherwise persuadable voters who will feel that the Democratic Party doesn’t have its priorities straight as he is to frame the GOP as “anti-science.” The indispensable energy that Democrats will benefit from as a result of Steyer’s NextGen PAC’s efforts, however, suggests that the party won’t be able to ask the billionaire liberal donor to stop helping anytime soon.

In short, Steyer is making a big mess for the Democrats that they would probably rather do without. Just don’t tell that to his party’s rank and file who are convinced that history is on their side, even though the rest of the country isn’t.

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