I'm as baffled as anyone by the apparent decision from the Democrats to give up on climate/energy and move immigration to the Senate floor. First of all, I'm baffled about whether or not its an actual decision. We have the CNN story (linked to above) that says so, followed by some rather mild White House pushback over the weekend. On the other hand, there's no actual bill to work on in the Senate yet on immigration, while climate/energy is close to ready for floor consideration.
My initial reaction was that this is a mistake by the White House (or Harry Reid, or whoever is making the decision), but even more so I'm not sure I understand the logic of it. The more I think about it, alas, the more confused I get, so after a few discarded drafts of posts that attempted to explain what they're doing, I realized that the main problem I have is that I can't figure out what facts, or beliefs, they're working from. So here's an attempt to at least get the playing field set up correctly.
What are the factors here? Well, first of all, there's the Democrats' judgment about the chances of either bill passing and being signed into law. It's hard to believe that they think that immigration has a real chance (see Ezra Klein's comments), but we know a lot less about their sense of climate/energy. Then, a second question is how they see the two bills politically. Do they believe that revving up Latino groups is worth annoying anti-immigrant groups? On climate/energy, are environmentalists a bigger group than those who might react by worrying about jobs?
So while my initial reaction is to agree with Ezra Klein and Jonathan Chait that the White House is making a mistake here, whether that's correct or not really depends on knowing the answers to those questions (that is, the answers to what Democratic leaders in Congress and the White House think). And that's just the first level, because it's also possible that they're wrong about the politics of the two issues, or the politics of getting the two bills through Congress.
For example: Suppose that industrial state Democratic Senators have made it clear to Reid that they simply will not vote for a climate bill. Or, suppose that the White House believed that a Kerry/Lieberman/Graham bill is likely to actually pass the Senate -- but that it has no chance in the House. If either of these is true, then the decision is purely one of election-year politics, because a bill is (considered to be) impossible. In that case, I'm not so sure that choosing immigration is a mistake. Or, it's possible that there's serious substantive objections from experts, in and out of government, to the kind of bill that could pass. If that's the case, the White House (and Congressional leaders) may believe that moving ahead on climate/energy might lead to bad public policy. In any of these cases, it's reasonable to believe that forcing tough votes in the quest for signing something worthwhile and then not getting a bill might be bad politics.
I do have one other thought about this...I was thinking of doing a post and titling it something like "Climate/Energy Bill Demise: It's Jane Hamsher's Fault," but since what I'm saying is I suppose speculative, I decided to hide it down here in the sixth or so paragraph of a fairly rambling post. But here goes. Suppose that the White House does believe that climate/energy has a pretty good chance to be signed into law, but that in order for that to happen, it will require another very high profile round of sausage-making. And, even more than in health care reform, the White House believes that the results would involve quite a bit of compromise. The problem here is that the White House is well aware that prominent liberal yakkers are unlikely to rally behind whatever Reid and Pelosi claim is necessary; instead, they are extremely likely to react with charges of sell-out, with claims that no bill would be better than a compromised bill, and with threats to stay home in November. I'm differentiating here between climate/energy experts, who Democratic leaders should certainly be consulting, and Democratic activists who might take a "purist" position that any compromise is bad news. At some point, the president and his aides (and the House and Senate leadership) might just say: why bother? Is it really worth passing a marginal bill, even if it would be marginally worth it on substantive grounds, if the likely political effects are to keep Republicans riled up and at the same time just frustrate liberal activists? Especially since, unlike health care, the effects of passing climate/energy are unlikely as far as I know to be noticeable to anyone, certainly not before Election Day in November.
Having raised that, I need to qualify it somewhat. First, the scenario does depend on a gap appearing between the policy views of vocal liberal activists and liberal experts. That certainly happened in health care. Would it happen in climate/energy? I think it's a little less likely, because of how interest groups are organized; there is no real "health care reform" interest group, but there are environmental groups, and liberal activists are likely to take their cues from those groups -- and those groups, in turn, may be more likely to listen to liberal experts. But it certainly could happen. The other part of this is that I think it would be a mistake for the White House to pay very much attention to dissenting liberal activists. The evidence on health care is that liberals overall were very happy with the bill, and continue to support the president, regardless of dissent to the left. Granted, Democrats this fall would be happier with enthusiastic support from all progressives, but it's easy to overstate the amount of dissent on health care reform.
It's also possible that the White House is following the line of thinking, spouted here by Joe Klein, that "the public has had quite enough, thank you, of government activism this year." If so, I disagree; I see no evidence from polling that "doing too much" is hurting the Democrats. Doing unpopular things would hurt, but I think the only people who are upset about "government activism" are the people who would oppose the Democrats whatever they did.
So after all that, I don't really have much of a conclusion. I guess what I'd say is that if Reid, Pelosi, and Obama believe that a climate bill can pass, then they should try to pass it. There will be plenty of time later, if they want it, to allow immigration to be shot down in the Senate (it doesn't take long to lose a cloture vote on a motion to proceed). But if they believe that no climate bill can be done, or if the only bill that can be done isn't worth it on substantive grounds, then backing off makes plenty of sense.