Conventional wisdom is often right, except when it’s not. The collective view of political insiders and the elite media shouldn’t be dismissed, because they’ve seen how the process works and often have a good sense of the outcome. The problem comes when we start to assume the know-it-alls really know it all.
I remember when it was conventional wisdom among Democrats that the American people would never elect a “right wing” “failed actor” to be the commander in chief. And insiders of both parties were sure that a first term senator -- an African-American with the middle name “Hussein” -- would never be chosen by the people to lead the nation.
This week we saw a smaller example of Washington conventional wisdom getting it wrong.
It was only a few weeks ago that insiders here were worried (or hopeful, depending on their point of view) that Gina McCarthy’s nomination to lead the EPA was dead. One senator had a hold on her nomination, another had demanded answers to 700 written questions (a record), and nearly half the committee considering her nomination boycotted a scheduled vote. But the real fear was that President Obama would unveil his highly anticipated plan to fight climate change, including the first-ever EPA rules to limit carbon pollution from power plants, and that, many predicted, would finally doom McCarthy’s chances.
Well, as you might have read, the 700 questions were answered, the senatorial hold was bypassed, the President unveiled his ambitious plan, and the Senate confirmed McCarthy 59-40.
It makes you wonder what else we assume about the climate debate that might be wrong. The most conventional of conventional wisdom about this issue is that Congress won’t pass a comprehensive plan on the scale necessary to solve the problem. And given the partisanship surrounding this issue at the moment, that’s almost certainly true for this current Congress. But lately there have been some small signs that things may be starting to change.
Signs the climate debate is changing
Last week, a House Republican staffer won an essay contest writing, in part, “Someone in the GOP needs to say it: conservation is conservative; climate change is real; and conservatives need to lead on solutions because we have better answers than the other side.”
The bad news is that, due to the existing state of the politics on this issue, the essayist felt the need to be anonymous. But the good news is that there’s evidence he is not alone in his views. Some current and past Republican congressmen have publically recognized the scientific consensus on climate change, like Bob Inglis of South Carolina. And it seems like many more become open to that position once they leave office, including former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and former House Rules Committee Chairman David Drier. I doubt their views suddenly changed when they become “former,” which means many serving Republicans may feel the same way right now.
There are other signs, too. Barry Goldwater, Jr. and the Georgia Tea Party are pushing for solar power, there are rising voices in the evangelical Christian movement, and some young conservatives are looking to steal the issue back from Democrats.
Hopefully we will start hearing more conservative ideas on how to solve this problem. I’m guessing they will be pretty drastically different from the liberal policy ideas, but that’s a debate worth having.
Will climate change follow the gay marriage example?
Of course, some will say that nothing is going to change. Opposing climate action was “good politics” for many Republicans in 2010 and that calculus will remain static. But remember that opposing gay marriage was good politics for the GOP in 2004, and by 2012 things were very different. And the same appears to be happening on immigration. Those changes were driven partly by demographics – the views of growing segments of the electorate couldn’t be ignored – and climate change is on that same track. Let’s hope we’re on the verge of a new and constructive policy debate about climate solutions, because it’s awfully hot outside.