I don’t know who sold progressive Democrats on the idea that the way to beat Donald Trump is to abolish the private health insurance of 160 million Americans and offer instead “Medicare for All” (and Mexico will pay for it), but it’s a political loser and an easy target for Trump to feast on. A much better campaign theme is hiding in plain sight. I call it “the Earth Race.”
In the 1960s, John F. Kennedy energized the country behind a “space race”: to make America the first nation to put a man on the moon. Democrats need to run against Trump on the Earth Race: to make America the leader in all policies and technologies that help men and women everywhere live sustainably here on Earth.
Yes, I know, mitigating climate change and saving the environment never poll well. But times change, and it depends how you frame the issue. Mother Nature is forcing herself onto the ballot, and Trump’s efforts to roll back more than 80 rules and standards protecting clean air, water, climate, parks and wilderness make him uniquely vulnerable. He can’t pivot away from what he’s doing. He owns it, and it’s villainous. This time is different.
In this era when so much activism is online, when was the last time you saw a bottom-up, mass movement of young people in America and across the world — some 4 million in all — take to the streets on every continent as they did last week to demand action to stop the heating of our planet? These young people are telling us, and their voting parents, that this issue is a political winner — theirs is a movement in search of courageous political leaders.
I am not saying that the Earth Race is the only issue to run on. I’m all for strengthening Obamacare and even adding a public health insurance option. But if I were running for president against Trump, I’d be leading with the Earth Race as an economic opportunity, a national security necessity, a health emergency, an environmental urgency and a moral obligation. No other issue can combine those five.
I’d pound Trump every day with this message: “Trump says he cares about you. Well, that’s funny, because he clearly doesn’t care about the water you drink. He just revoked a rule that prohibited coal mining debris from being dumped into local streams — among other actions to weaken the Clean Water Act — so that pro-Trump coal companies can make more money while they make you sick. What kind of president does that?
“Trump says he cares about you. Well, that’s funny, because he clearly doesn’t care about the air you breathe. He’s weakening clean air rules so that power and coal companies can emit more pollutants, methane and carbon dioxide into the air — so they can make more money and give your kids more childhood asthma today and disruptive climate change tomorrow. What kind of father does that?
“Trump says he cares about making America great again. Well, that’s funny, because he clearly doesn’t care about American automakers and their supply chains. He’s trying to force California and other states to weaken their gas mileage and pollution standards so our companies — which don’t even want this change — can make gas guzzlers and no longer produce cars that get mileage as good as those in Japan or emit as little pollution as China’s expanding electric car fleets. Who the hell does that?
“The last time our auto industry indulged in a race to the bottom on mileage and pollution standards, it went bankrupt. That’s why automakers are resisting Trump’s effort to dumb them down. There are 42 Chinese companies actively manufacturing and selling electric cars in China right now — and they can’t wait to ship them here once Trump forces our manufacturers to make more polluting gas guzzlers.
"All 18,000 public buses in Shenzhen, China, a city of 12 million people, went electric by the end of 2017. ‘Taxis soon followed suit,’ TechCrunch reported in January. In Shenzhen today, 99% of the more than 21,000 cabs run on electric batteries. How does America become great again if we’re surrendering the world’s next great industry — clean power generation and transportation — to China?
“Trump says he’s pro-business. Well, that’s funny, because he’s trying to expand the use of polluting coal when both wind and solar are now cheaper in many locations, including red states. Even Texas is enjoying the cost, environmental and job-creating advantages of wind over coal, producing almost twice as much wind energy as California.
“The Los Angeles Times reported last week: ‘The cost of wind power has fallen about 50% since 2010. Solar has dropped 85%. That makes them cheaper than new coal and gas plants in two-thirds of the world, according to research organization BloombergNEF.’
“Trump says he wants to make America energy independent. Well, that’s funny, because he just rolled back the lighting standards initiated by President George W. Bush and his assistant secretary of energy Andy Karsner to phase out energy-sucking, heat-emitting incandescent and halogen bulbs and replace them with energy-efficient LEDs.
“Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, told NPR: ‘The rollback will eliminate energy-efficient standards for light bulbs that were slated to take effect in January that would save consumers billions of dollars and reduce millions of tons of climate change carbon dioxide emissions.’ Who does that?”
How do you run against all these things Trump’s doing? With a simple message repeated over and over: “Trump is poisoning Americans and weakening America. Join the Earth Race. Make America healthier, wealthier, smarter and more secure.”
And with a simple solution, too. The Earth Race doesn’t need a giant Green New Deal that tries to change everything at once, as noble as that goal is. It just needs to aggressively amplify what is already happening.
Today, 24 states — including blue California and purple New Mexico — have put in place, to varying degrees, steadily rising standards for clean energy from their power plants and efficiency standards for their vehicles, homes and buildings.
We’ve already seen the impact, as Andrew McAfee documents in his important new book, “More From Less.” Total resource use in America is now declining — even as our economy has kept growing — because rising standards like these have made us steadily more efficient and innovative.
A candidate running on the Earth Race should just say: “I’ll require all 50 states to move to such standards. When you get all 50 states imposing steadily rising standards for clean power, transportation and energy efficiency — and let the market determine the most effective solutions — you will unleash an explosion of innovation that will create thousands of products to export to the rest of the world in so many different areas of clean power, energy and efficiency — and you’ll be mitigating climate change at the same time.”
The Earth Race candidate would tell people every day: “You can vote for a man who wants to bring back cars that get bad mileage, lights that use more energy and produce more heat, power plants that produce more asthma, chemical companies that pollute more rivers, coal companies that pollute more air, mining companies that strip more pristine landscapes, and an economy that lags China in the next great global industry.
“Or you can join the Earth Race and make Donald Trump’s presidency an extinct species while saving Mother Nature’s endangered species.”
If a candidate can’t make headway with that message, either America is doomed or he or she doesn’t belong in politics.
Thomas L. Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.