By Darren Samuelsohn
Politico.com, Capitol News Company
July 18, 2010 07:12
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid played dumb last week when a reporter asked him if the energy and climate bill headed to the floor would come with a “cap” on greenhouse gas emissions.
“I don’t use that,” the Nevada Democrat replied. “Those words are not in my vocabulary. We’re going to work on pollution.”
Moments earlier, Reid had confirmed he was trying to craft legislation targeting the heat-trapping pollution that comes from power plants. But he’s determined to win the war of words when it comes to a carbon cap — and that means losing the lexicon attached to past climate battles.
Gone, in the Democrat’s mind, are the terms “cap” and “cap and trade,” which are synonymous with last June’s House-passed climate bill as well as other existing environmental policies for curbing traditional air pollutants. In their place are new slogans recommended by prominent pollsters (and even a neuroscientist) that Reid and allies hope they can use to overcome the long-shot prospects for passing climate legislation.
But they’ve got a difficult job ahead. Already, Republican-led attacks during the past year have crushed the Democrats in the message war over a very complex piece of legislation. GOP opponents have exploited public angst over record unemployment levels, higher taxes and the creation of a new carbon market that’s potentially worth trillions of dollars, a reminder for voters of the recent Wall Street collapse.
“There’s been a communication battle that’s been very much one-sided up to this point,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change and an expert on public opinion surrounding global warming science and policy.
In January, Leiserowitz published a study that found that fewer than a third of Americans had ever heard of the term “cap and trade” — not exactly fertile ground to be passing legislation with such a program at its core.
“That’s an enormous indictment of how little Democrats and environmental advocates, all of the stakeholders, how poorly they’d laid the groundwork among the public to actually get something done,” he said.
“And that left a giant vacuum in which opponents of legislation have been very quick … to call it ‘cap and tax’ and a ‘national energy tax.’”
Enter the rebranding strategy — a controversial overhaul that many Republicans still see as spin. Some Democrats remain dubious, too. Last week, Reid’s office brought in Drew Westen, an Emory University neuroscience professor, to explain the best messaging practices to about 30 Democratic Senate chiefs of staff and communications directors.
A Senate Democratic aide in the room said Westen covered a lot of ground, starting with a call to “get us out of acronym land, get us out of Senate-speak and [get] it down to regular terminology of what’s effective and what’s not.”
That means no longer referring to climate legislation by any one particular author, such as Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) or Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). It’s also about playing up the patriotism angle, including the prospect of losing out to the Chinese on development of clean energy technologies. And then Westen urged them to go for the political jugular by associating Democrats with new ideas for clean fuels while labeling GOP opponents as “trying to go backward with dirty fuels.”
“Being aspirational but also drawing clear contrasts,” the Senate Democratic staffer said.
In fact, climate bill advocates have been trying to implement ideas from Westen and other well-known wordsmiths over the past year.
Just before President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech, Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp and GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who had famously done work for climate change opponents during the George W. Bush administration, released a study showing that the best way to sell greenhouse gas legislation was by talking about national security and “energy independence,” while avoiding debate over the science of climate change.
Then there’s Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who worked from October 2009 until April 2010 in closed-door talks with Kerry and Lieberman on a climate bill and became arguably the issue’s best spokesman. Earlier this year, Graham declared “cap and trade economywide is dead,” even as Senate staff worked on a plan that placed the economy’s three biggest polluting sectors (power plants, manufacturers and transportation) into their own regulatory schemes.
Graham also has tried to appeal to climate bill opponents by arguing the measure isn’t about global warming. “There’s nowhere near 60 votes to save the polar bear,” he said last month.
While the South Carolina Republican remains on the sidelines when it comes to brass-tack negotiations before the floor, he told POLITICO last week that he still believes in the message.
“Controlling smokestack emissions as part of an energy independence, job creation plan has some resonance with me,” he said. “Cap and trade is associated with a solution to global warming. Again, carbon pollution is bad for people, bad for the environment. But you’re not going to turn the economy upside down based on that theory.”
Many Republicans said they aren’t buying the rhetorical shift, and they say they will pound away on the bill as a new tax increase if and when the legislation hits the floor.
“It’s cap and trade,” said New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, one of a handful of Republicans Democrats still consider swing votes on the legislation. “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, swims like a duck, it’s a duck.”
“That’s just an exercise in spin,” said Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “The bottom line is, it’s legislation that will raise energy prices for Americans.”
“Why has Sen. Reid engaged in semantics in trying to change the wording, if not because he knows that raising energy prices in a time of economic woe is a nonstarter?” Dillon added.
Climate bill advocates look at the historical record and scratch their heads. They recall that free-market Republicans are the original source of the “cap-and-trade” concept, after they went looking for alternatives to the “command-and-control” system of the 1970s, when direct limits went on tailpipes and smokestacks.
President George H.W. Bush proposed and signed into law the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments that set up a cap-and-trade system to reduce acid rain. Climate critics of the second President Bush hounded him whenever he talked about the issue without bending in his opposition to mandatory caps. And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) even embraced an economywide climate cap-and-trade bill to distinguish himself from the Bush administration.
“Cap and trade has certainly been demonized,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “I think that’s unfortunate. … So we’ll just call it something different.”
Mark Mellman, a Washington-based Democratic pollster, said Republicans are misleading the public when they smack a “tax” label on a policy that forces companies, rather than individual citizens, to clean up their pollution.
“They’re stretching the meaning of these words so far that they have no meaning at all,” said Mellman, who has given more than a dozen briefings to House and Senate Democrats and their staffs on the lingo of climate change legislation. “And there’s a definition for that. It’s called the ‘big lie’ technique.”
Yet some advocates for climate legislation still concede that their messaging campaign isn’t working — especially not so late in the game.
“Rebranded strategies rarely work when people say, ‘I’m not going to use those words anymore,’” said an environmental advocate close to the debate. “They usually require a different, more subtle approach.”
“The problem with a rebranding strategy is, the other side has to go along, too. This is a mature, 10-year debate, and I don’t think you can change the paint job the day before the sale.