One of the most important moments in last night’s GOP debate came when Alexander Diaz with the Young America’s Foundation asked a question about climate change. Diaz noted that polls consistently show that young people’s number one issue is climate change. He asked, “How will you as both president and leader of the Republican Party calm their fears that the Republican party doesn’t care about climate change?”
Fox News moderator Martha MacCallum then asked the candidates to raise their hands if they believed “human behavior is causing climate change.”
A more nuanced setup (i.e. asking if human activity is a contributing factor) would have been helpful but the candidates knew what she was trying to ask.
DeSantis, who has a very good conservation record as Florida Governor, pushed back on the hand raising request saying, “We’re not schoolchildren, let’s have the debate,” before hitting points against the “corporate media” and Biden’s awful response to the Maui wildfires. DeSantis apparently thought this approach would win him more support among primary voters than offering a straight-up answer to the question.
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Vivek Ramaswamy’s response was atrocious. He first insisted his “hands were in his pockets” while accusing DeSantis of raising his hand (DeSantis didn’t raise his hand) before declaring the “climate agenda is a hoax.”
Ramaswamy, who fashions himself as a next-generation truth-teller, was being booed by members of the next generation in the audience while he went on to argue (not inaccurately) that bad climate policy can be more dangerous than climate change itself.
After the debate, DeSantis’ “Never Back Down” PAC blasted Ramaswamy for being duplicitous in a video that quotes Ramaswamy acknowledging that human activity is contributing to climate change. In campaigns, the jugular is brand fidelity – what voters trust the candidate to be – and that’s what smart attacks go after. When Mr. Truth is parsing words by saying the climate agenda is a hoax but climate change itself is real, he sounds like just another politician, but not as skilled. For Ramaswamy the moment may be remembered as a Clintonian “it depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is” moment.
The one candidate who wasn’t afraid to answer the question without dancing around the issue was South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.
“Climate change is real,” she said. “Yes, it is. If you want to change the environment, we need to start telling China and India that they have to lower their emissions.”
Haley’s decision to shoot straight (she knows younger voters don’t want parsed answers on climate) displayed a political sensibility that is future-focused. Haley also was the only candidate to lament the revival of earmarks and the GOP’s departure from spending restraint that was central to its political and policy winning streak in the pre-Trump Tea Party era.
GOP voters already believe humans are contributing to climate change and want solutions. Even if there’s room for improvement on the answers, the climate change question itself was a huge win for anyone in the conservative movement who believes that Republican candidates have to thoughtfully address the topic if the GOP wants to continue to exist as a serious center-right party. A good five-word answer would be: Free economies are clean economies. To the extent that climate change is a risk exacerbated by human activity, the answer is more economic freedom and innovation, not less. We’re not asking Republicans to abandon their principles. We’re asking them to apply their principles and recognize that the issue is more of an opportunity than an obstacle.
Regarding the elephant in the room, it’s hard to measure the extent to which Tucker Carlson’s interview with Donald Trump took attention away from the GOP debate. Fox News averages about 1.7 million primetime viewers. Team Trump’s claim that nearly 175 million have watched the video at the time of this writing is as credible as Trump’s claim that he won the 2020 election in a landslide. The 175 million number doesn’t count actual views, only how many times the post popped up as someone scrolled. The video currently has 573,000 likes, 171,000 reposts and 47,000 comments.
Yet, as I’ve argued before it’s abundantly clear that Trump is an unbearable opportunity cost for the GOP. As long as he’s the de facto leader of the party (he believes he is the party) any other topic will struggle to break through.
The question for the Trump coronation caucus isn’t whether you’re tired of winning yet. The question is whether you’re tired of losing yet. Pledging fealty to Trump has cost the GOP the last three elections. It was disappointing to see all but two of the candidates eager to raise their hands and pledge allegiance to a candidate who isn’t loyal to the Constitution.
Still, Diaz, and every organization that cheered him on, like the American Conservative Coalition, deserves praise. Instead of wringing our hands, we’re creating a world in which candidates have to answer a question that isn’t going away.