Commentary: The Green New Deal could dramatically alter our political debate

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Liberal Democrats have been talking about a Green New Deal for months now, and on Thursday morning, they unveiled its first iteration, a resolution introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts.

The resolution isn't a detailed piece of legislation. Instead, it's a statement of intent, explaining the justification and goals of a massive infrastructure program to transition to a sustainable future. This is at once incredibly ambitious and politically practical, in that its advocates seem to have in their minds a long-term plan to get it accomplished.

Don't be surprised if in short order it becomes one of the defining pieces of the Democratic agenda, both in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail.

Since Democrats have control of only one house of Congress, the course that Green New Deal advocates are following is to begin by articulating the need and establishing the framework of a plan. That gives Democrats something to get behind and drives a discussion, putting the issue on the agenda for the next couple of years. If they succeed, when it becomes actually possible to pass such a plan and have it signed by a Democratic president - 2021 at the earliest - the question will no longer be whether we need a Green New Deal, but what it should and shouldn't include.

That's the idea, anyway. If you want a point-by-point examination of the proposal, I'd suggest this analysis from David Roberts of Vox, but here's the synopsis from Ocasio-Cortez's website:

The Green New Deal is a 10-year plan to create a greenhouse gas neutral society that creates unprecedented levels of prosperity and wealth for all while ensuring economic and environmental justice and security.

The Green New Deal achieves this through a World War II scale mobilization that focuses the robust and creative economic engine of the United States on reversing climate change by fully rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, restoring our natural ecosystems, dramatically expanding renewable power generation, overhauling our entire transportation system, upgrading all our buildings, jumpstarting US clean manufacturing, transforming US agriculture, and putting our nation's people to work doing what they do best: making the impossible possible.

Whenever Democrats offer a major policy proposal, the immediate response from both Republicans and journalists is "How will you pay for it?" Ocasio-Cortez was asked that question in an interview that aired on NPR on Thursday morning, and she was happy to say that yes, government is going to spend money on these projects:

"We have tried their approach for 40 years. For 40 years, we tried to let the private sector take care of it. They've said 'We got this. We can do this. The forces of the market are going to force us to innovate.' Except for the fact that there's a little thing in economics called externalities. And what that means is that a corporation can dump pollution in the river and they don't have to pay for it, and taxpayers have to pay for cleaning up our air, cleaning up our water, and saving the planet. And so we've already been paying the costs, except we have not been getting any of the benefit. And so what we're here to say is that government is not just for cleaning up other people's mess, but it's also for building solutions in places where the private sector will not."

This is perhaps the most important feature of this proposal: In both its content and the way its advocates are selling it, it's meant to change the way we think about government projects.

You can see why this would make Republicans nervous, beyond the fact that they don't particularly care about climate change and don't like government to do much of anything affirmative. They have managed to shape the debate on government spending in an extraordinary way, in that the things they want to spend money on, like tax breaks for the wealthy or wars or enormous military budgets, are almost never questioned in the same way.

When Republicans say, "We need to spend three-quarters of a trillion dollars on the military next year," reporters don't pepper them with questions about how it'll be paid for. It's just accepted that it's worthwhile, and therefore deficit spending is an appropriate way to finance whatever taxes don't cover.

Ocasio-Cortez and others are making the same argument about green infrastructure, as well as things such as expanding health coverage: It's worthwhile, and if deficit spending is what's required to pay for it, that's fine.

Up until now, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have been tiptoeing around the idea of a Green New Deal, saying that they support it in theory but they want to see the details before endorsing anything. Now there's something for them to grab on to, and so they'll have to make a decision. My guess is that nearly all of them will in fact endorse it. It leaves enough room to say that they'll adjust the particulars once they're president, while also giving them a quick and easy way to signal to primary voters not only that they're serious about climate change but also that they're willing to think big and bold.

And it's almost impossible to overstate how important that is for members of the Democratic base right now. They're tired of timid technocrats who want to take existing policy and make a nip here and a tuck there. They want not only ambitious proposals but also candidates who don't accept how Republicans have shaped the debate in ways that are so familiar we barely notice them. Endorsing the Green New Deal will allow the candidates to say: That's the kind of president I'll be. And if the eventual nominee becomes president, she'll have no choice but to follow through.


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