Presidential Polls: A Romney Loss May Push GOP to the Center on Climate Change

I am an optimist in most areas of life, but on the prospects of important action on climate change, I’m much less sanguine. However, the catastrophic impact of Hurricane Sandy and Mayor Bloomberg’s endorsement of Obama have me feeling a bit more optimistic, and climate change is a significant issue for undecided voters, according to recent polls. In the past few days, others have offered similar hopes that Sandy may be a galvanizing moment for climate change activists.

But what is the optimist’s best hope for radical policy change on climate change in the next administration?

First, let’s assume that Obama wins a close victory on Tuesday. An Obama victory would almost certainly cause some soul-searching among the Republican Party. Many will argue that Romney wasn’t a “real” conservative, and, therefore, argue that the GOP needs to move even further to the right.

But there also may be a significant number of Republicans who come to see “centrism” as their best path forward. (Remember, we’re allowing optimistic assumptions here). These Republicans moving to the center might look to Romney’s surge in the polls over the final month of the campaign as vindication of a more moderate Mitt. They might also survey the Republican field for 2016 and recognize New Jersey Governor Chris Christie — a “centrist” Republican governor of a solidly blue state — stands as the most imposing national figure.

But Republicans aiming for the center might find themselves getting lost. Centrism is popular, but poorly defined; there exist many different “brands” of centrism.

Among these competing brands is that of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Until now, Bloomberg’s centrism was best known for nanny-state regulation of smoking and sodas — hardly the sort of cause most small-government Republicans want to latch onto. But now, in his qualified endorsement of Obama which put climate change front and center, Bloomberg has made a passionate, muscular argument that climate change is and should be a defining feature of his brand of centrism. Bloomberg has made it clear that his brand of centrism puts a serious focus on climate change.

In the past, Bloomberg’s definition of centrism might have been just one of many. But in a post-Citizens United world, in which Bloomberg can spend his billions as he wishes, Bloomberg’s definition becomes much more important.

Many on the left and most climate change advocates mourned the Citizens United decision, and with good reason. But one of the consequences of the decision — reducing limits on spending on political speech — is the outsized role now afforded to wealthy liberals as well as conservatives. While the most prominent spenders thus far  have been on the right (think the Koch brothers) spending by wealthy individuals on the left or center can also have a major impact on shaping the focus of the debate.

Bloomberg is Koch-brother wealthy, but doesn’t share the Kochs’ love for dirty energy. Rather, Bloomberg, through his new Super PAC, is poised to become climate change’s best-funded advocate. It’s yet to be seen how exactly Bloomberg will use his money. But as long as we’re continuing the march of hopeful assumptions, let’s postulate that his Super PAC will donate to centrist candidates who champion the causes about which Bloomberg is most passionate. These include obesity, gun control, and — as is now abundantly clear — climate change.

Note that for each assumption or prediction detailed above, there’s an equally plausible alternative scenario that leaves us no closer to action on climate change. Still, the
optimist’s great hope for this political moment is that Bloomberg’s money will give Republicans in the House and Senate, struggling to redefine their party after a Romney loss, reason to consider Bloomberg’s brand of climate-focused centrism.

Were climate change to become a “centrist” issue, a second Obama administration might finally have a chance to build a political coalition strong enough to enact serious climate change legislation.