When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, same-sex marriage was a loser. Whatever his own views, he knew supporting marriage equality would hurt him in the general election, and wouldn’t help him in the primaries. And so he — like Hillary Clinton, and like every previous serious contender for either party’s presidential nomination — declined to do so.
With Obama’s victory in 2008 the Democratic calculus changed. Presidential hopefuls knew that Obama would be the nominee in 2012, and set their eyes on 2016. And it didn’t take a psychic to see that given long-term polling trends no Democrat could win the party nomination in 2016 without supporting marriage equality.
And so the party’s most ambitious politicians, particularly those outside the Obama administration, started getting their ducks in a row. Both New York governor Andrew Cuomo and Maryland governor Martin O’Malley made marriage equality a priority during their current terms of office, with Cuomo presiding over the passage of a same-sex marriage bill last year and O’Malley pushing hard on next week’s statewide referendum.
This week Andrew Cuomo is laying down a similar marker on a very different issue.
At his morning Hurricane Sandy press conference yesterday, Cuomo used blunt language: “We have a new reality when it comes to these weather patterns,” he said, but “old infrastructure and old systems. That’s not a good combination.” We as a country cannot, he said, keep pretending to be shocked when “once in a century” storms come along every couple of years.
At this morning’s press conference, Cuomo was even blunter. “Part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality, extreme weather is a reality, it’s a reality that we are vulnerable,” he said. “We need to anticipate more of these extreme weather type situations, and we need to take that into consideration in modifying our infrastructure and our built environment.”
The evidence for anthropogenic global warming continues to grow, and there’s every reason to believe that Sandy won’t be the last or the biggest American weather disaster of the coming presidential cycle. With every mammoth storm and record-breaking heat wave the character of the political conversation will shift.
Smart Republicans understand that their party’s position on same-sex marriage is becoming a drag on their electoral prospects, and dread the cycle of soundbites that will dog them on gay rights issues in elections to come. If we keep having weather like we’ve been having, they may wind up in a similar box on climate issues — and sooner than most observers imagine.
But there is, of course, a huge difference between climate and marriage equality: Marriage equality is free. Same-sex marriage is an incredibly straightforward question. You support it or you don’t. You implement it or you don’t. There’s virtually no accompanying policy wrangling, and no budgetary impact. Given this, Cuomo’s approach is particularly noteworthy, and it points to an aspect of the climate change debate that’s received very little political attention so far.
Once you accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change, the policy debate breaks down into two large questions: How do we stop it, and what do we do about what we can’t stop? The former is the one that’s most consumed policymakers and liberal advocacy groups so far, but the latter is where Cuomo put his emphasis, and with good reason.
The political debate over whether climate change is real isn’t going to disappear anytime soon (just like the same-sex marriage will persist long after it becomes a national liability for Republicans). But even while that debate is ongoing, practical questions will come to the forefront.
You don’t need to “believe in climate change” to see that we’re getting weather we didn’t used to get, and with every new datapoint the case that it’s a series of flukes will be harder to make. While policymakers battle over carbon policy and geoengineering, local issues will demand attention, and won’t wait.
And this offers an opportunity for a Democratic presidential candidate, particularly one currently sitting in a governor’s mansion. “Infrastructure” is a word Cuomo used repeatedly yesterday, and it’s a word you’re going to be hearing a lot more from Democrats in the years to come.