In the November 2018 midterm elections, Democrats won the U.S. House of Representatives popular vote by a margin of about 8.6 percent and gained 40 seats in that chamber. For perspective, President Obama won his convincing 2008 and 2012 elections by 7.2 percent and 3.9 percent, respectively. While Republicans increased their Senate hold in 2018 by two seats and strengthened their majority control, they won races only in states that had voted for Donald Trump for President in 2016, and Republican Senate candidates lost races in eight states that Trump had won.
It was a decisive “Blue Wave” election, and when asked what they considered the most important issue in exit polls, 41 percent of voters listed health care, and three-quarters of those voted for Democrats. That was the issue Democrats campaigned most heavily on in 2018, and it helped sweep them back into power in the House. And some eerie similarities are emerging between health care and climate change in the American political landscape.
Republicans have rejected compromise
When the Obama administration took office in 2009, its three highest priorities were passing a stimulus package to pull America out of the Great Recession, implementing health care reform, and tackling climate change. President Obama set out to negotiate with congressional Republicans on all three.
On health care, Democrats – albeit often with reluctance and only in the face of insurmountable opposition – cast aside their preference for universal health care or even a public option. They lent support instead to a more conservative policy based on “Romneycare,” named after 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s approach in Massachusetts. (Romney in November was elected to the U.S. Senate from Utah.) Despite Democrats’ efforts to seek a health care compromise, no Senate Republicans voted for the legislation, and congressional Republicans subsequently tried 70 times to repeal, modify or otherwise curb the Affordable Care Act.
With that history, many Democrats appear to have grown tired of trying to protect Obamacare as it now stands, and party leaders are lending support to some version of Medicare-for-all.
In short, Republican lawmakers rejected a conservative health care policy solution, and they have been unable to come up with and pass a preferred alternative. Their constituents’ concerns over health care cost many congressional Republicans in the 2018 elections. And now they see an incoming Democratic majority in the House, come January 3, embracing a more liberal government-based policy approach over the more market-based compromise solution.
Health care and climate similarities
The similarities between health care and climate policymaking are striking. In 2009, House Democrats also had chosen to advance a compromise climate policy solution in cap-and-trade. It was an approach favored at that time by another recent Republican presidential candidate – in this case, 2008 nominee Senator John McCain (R-AZ). And cap-and-trade too, in the late-1980s, was originally a conservative invention, championed by then-President George H.W. Bush to tackle the problem of acid rain.
But once again, the compromise proposal faced overwhelming opposition from Republican lawmakers. Just eight of 178 Republicans voted in favor of the cap-and-trade bill that House Democrats passed, and the issue was never brought up for a vote on the Senate floor for fear of a Republican filibuster.
On climate change, Republicans have another chance
As with health care, many liberals appear tired of pursuing compromise policy solutions on climate change only to be rewarded with what they see as obstruction from Republican lawmakers. Many Democrats are now instead championing a “Green New Deal”: details have yet to be fleshed out, but it would involve a vast government intervention in support of green technologies and would thus be far less compatible with conservative, libertarian, or “free-market” principles.
And, again, as with health care, many Democrats see climate change as a winning issue for them. According to the latest “Climate Change in the American Mind” survey datafrom Yale and George Mason, 62 percent of Americans are worried about climate change, up from 51 percent five years ago. This number even includes 55 percent of liberal/moderate Republicans. As temperatures continue to rise and as climate impacts like California’s record wildfires grow yet more severe, we can expect voters to increasingly demand policy solutions. In a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, 15 percent of Democrats said climate change should be the new Congress’ top priority, statistically tied for second with the economy and gun control, behind only – you guessed it – health care.
The GOP is thus left with two options. Republicans can continue to cede the issue to Democrats, possibly hurting their election chances and leading to growing support for a more activist ultimate policy solution; or they can throw their support behind free market, small government policy solutions.
A few House Republicans, in the days immediately after the November election “wave,” have chosen the latter path. Representatives Francis Rooney (R-FL), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), and Dave Trott (R-MI) have co-sponsored a revenue-neutral carbon tax bill with Democrats Ted Deutch (D-FL), Charlie Crist (D-FL), John Delaney (D-MD), and Anna Eshoo (D-CA). The legislation mirrors the fee-and-dividend proposal by the grassroots organization Citizens’ Climate Lobby.
It would implement an aggressively rising carbon tax with 100 percent of the revenue returned to Americans via monthly dividend checks. The bill would prohibit EPA carbon pollution regulations as long as strict emissions reductions targets are met, which should please conservatives. The equal distribution of revenue rebates to all individuals is a progressive tax policy that would protect low-income households from higher energy bills, which should please liberals. A 2014 study found that under such a policy, American carbon pollution would fall by 33 percent after only 10 years and by 52 percent after 20 years, while having a modestly beneficial impact on the economy.
Proponents defend it as a smart, effective, compromise climate change solution.
Is compromise still possible?