The Radical Simplicity of Jay Inslee’s 2020 Campaign

All the Democratic candidates are pledging climate change action. But Inslee’s pitch stands out.

Jay Inslee, surrounded by wind turbines, solar panels, an electric car, and a compact fluorescent lightbulb.
Jay Inslee stays focused. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos of Smitt/iStock/Getty Images Plus, rottadana/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Besiki Kavtaradze/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and Zach Gibson / Stringer.

No other Democrat running for president has a more straightforward message than Jay Inslee, the second-term governor of Washington state who has built his 2020 bid entirely around addressing climate change. “The science is clear,” he wrote in a January op-ed laying out his case before he had even jumped in the race. “We have a short period of time to act. And whether we shrink from this challenge, or rise to it, is the biggest question we face, as a nation and as a people.” He’d soon kick off his campaign with an 80-second video that uttered the words climate change or global warming a dozen times.

It’s natural, then, that Inslee’s campaign often gets boiled down to two words, climate change, but what truly distinguishes him from his Democratic rivals is a different word: priorities. “To govern is to choose,” as he likes to put it. Other White House hopefuls talk about the urgency of climate change, Inslee argues, but he’s the only one in the field who will prioritize it above all else—even health care (though he’s careful to note that global warming affects everything from public health to social justice). Given his long track record of climate advocacy and action, there’s good reason to believe that he really would deliver on his promise.

Inslee’s pragmatism doesn’t make for the most compelling stump speech, considering Democratic voters have been hearing a version of it for decades. He’s spent the first month of his campaign inside the margin of error in most polls and struggling to get noticed. But given the massive gap between what the United States is currently doing to limit the impact of global warming and what the science says it needs to be doing, Inslee’s pitch is radical in its own way. His problem is that his approach can look, well, kind of boring when compared with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. Her wide-ranging proposal is backed by Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and a number of other White House hopefuls, at least nominally, and has come to define how many progressives, particularly younger ones, view the issue.

Inslee has had kind words for AOC’s effort, but he has not endorsed it as his preferred solution. Instead, he offers a more traditional and technocratic approach, one that applies the lessons he’s learned back home, where his state government has invested heavily in clean-energy research and development and is trying to cap emissions but has now failed twice to put a price on carbon. The Green New Deal is inviting Americans to reimagine the very role of the federal government in their lives; Inslee, by contrast, is simply asking them to picture what it would be like to have someone in the Oval Office who makes climate change his top priority day in and day out and who is willing to accept small, incremental victories where he can get them.

Inslee has not yet released a detailed climate plan, but his stated goals overlap with elements of the Green New Deal and will sound familiar to anyone who’s heard a Democratic candidate talk about climate recently: He wants to transition the U.S. economy entirely to “clean energy and net-zero greenhouse gas pollution,” invest heavily in green jobs and infrastructure, end subsidies for fossil fuels, and “fight for” environmental justice and economic inclusion.
Like the rest of his rivals, he also says that he’d rush to reinstate the Obama-era climate rules that the Trump administration has rolled back and to reenter the Paris climate accord. “Thank goodness for President Obama—he did take action against climate change,” Inslee told the audience at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, last month.

Such praise for Obama is a bit jarring given that he didn’t go nearly as far as many climate hawks would have preferred. If to govern is to choose, as Inslee says, then Obama’s climate critics will tell you he chose expanding health care over combating global warming. But Inslee doesn’t necessarily see it that way. In his telling, the climate failures of the past are not the result of a failure of imagination or lack of sufficient effort from his party but instead a result of circumstances outside Democrats’ control. Consider what he recently told the New Yorker was the biggest missed opportunity on climate in recent memory:

I think we could have taken Ralph Nader out on a ship before he could file for President. And set the ship adrift. And allowed him to be fed and healthy before the filing deadline. That would have been the most significant thing where we missed our opportunity. I mean, really! You think about how different the world could have been for three hundred and fifty votes that Ralph Nader took out of Al Gore’s pocket. Every time I think about that it just drives me nuts.

Inslee was joking about setting the 2000 Green Party nominee out to sea, but he sounds earnestly like he believes that the Democratic Party has largely been on the right path for years. He offers a similar reading of the two other major inflection points in the climate debate this century: the defeat of cap and trade, which was thwarted by a GOP filibuster during Obama’s first term, and Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory in 2016, despite losing the popular vote. Here Inslee’s solutions are again almost radically simple. He wants to end the filibuster and abolish the Electoral College, putting him to the left of several progressive rivals on issues of democratic process while he simultaneously sits closer to the center of his party on matters of climate policy.

Inslee is neither preaching to the choir nor necessarily looking for converts. Instead, he is putting his faith in the polls that suggest that voters are already sufficiently worried about man-made climate change to want real action. The number of Americans who say they are either “alarmed” or “concerned” about the issue has doubled in the past five years to 59 percent, according to the latest survey taken by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, while the number who are “doubtful” or “dismissive” has dropped by more than half to just 18 percent.

The public’s growing acceptance of the problem is good news—for both the planet and for Inslee’s campaign—but being concerned is not the same as being concerned enough to prioritize climate above all else, as Inslee is asking them to do. In a Pew Research Center poll early this year, for instance, global warming came in second from the bottom on a list of Americans’ 18 top policy priorities—26 percentage points behind the economy. Democrats in the states with the first nominating contests, however, tend to view climate change as a far higher priority, giving Inslee an opening, albeit a tiny one. In a recent Center for American Progress poll, climate change and health care topped the list of priorities for early-state primary voters. But Inslee is asking them to choose one issue over the other, while many of his rivals are promising there’s room for both. It’s to his credit that he concedes his singular focus “means deferring other worthy goals,” but that doesn’t change the reality that the Democratic base has a lengthy wish list that voters are unlikely to sacrifice.

Inslee’s climate crusade has overshadowed his reliably progressive track record: While in Congress, he voted for a ban automatic weapons and voted against the Iraq war, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, and the 2008 bank bailout. As governor, he’s overseen the implementation of paid family leave, a minimum wage hike, the legalization of pot, and a moratorium on the death penalty. Likewise, he’s called for a state-run public health care option and played a leading role in the state-led efforts to challenge Trump’s Muslim ban. With that kind of résumé, Inslee could make an intriguing option to round out the eventual Democratic ticket—a way for the nominee to signal to voters that climate change remains a top priority for the party. With Inslee in the No. 2 spot, though, it would also serve as a reminder that climate change is not the No. 1 priority.

Meanwhile, Inslee’s presence on the primary campaign trail and potentially on the debate stage would, in an ideal world, force his Democratic rivals to get more specific about how much of their limited political capital they’d be willing to spend on climate change. In the real world, however, there are no such guarantees. Inslee’s climate pitch may get lost amid all the other flashier promises offered by a historically large primary field. The best laid climate plans, then, may once again get derailed by something outside of his control.