History yields a few examples of presidential candidacies designed not to win office but to raise attention to a pressing issue: “free soil” anti-slavery candidates before the Civil War, Pete McCloskey’s anti-Vietnam War Republican primary challenge to Richard Nixon in 1972, Ellen McCormack’s bid as an anti-abortion Democrat in 1976. Single-issue candidates aren’t necessarily interested in becoming president as much as pulling the party in their favored direction.
Most don’t amount to much.
But when I see Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s campaign to deal with the climate crisis, and what that has inspired within the Democratic race, I see the model of a successful single-issue campaign. Inslee has hardly been alone in provoking climate action: the Sunrise Movement has been uniquely effective from the outside, as has Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal from the inside. But a tangible policy is incredibly valuable, and Inslee’s is recognized—including by AOC—as the gold standard.
“The country clearly cannot stand still,” Inslee told me after his speech at the California Democratic Party convention over the weekend. “Going into a crouch and having a status quo position is deadly because of the climate change crisis. We have to act.”
Inslee’s unyielding stance has every wing of the party scrambling to keep up. But with a forecast as dire as what the planet faces, Inslee’s campaign could become more than just a motivating factor for his fellow candidates. It makes a case for his own ascendancy, as the only person in the race serious enough to identify Earth’s biggest threat.
On the same day this week, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden released climate packages that edge toward Inslee’s tent-pole policy. Biden proposed $1.7 trillion in federal investments to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050; Warren upped that to $2 trillion for clean energy research, procurement, and global outreach. Inslee’s direct investment goes to $3 trillion, with a target of 100 percent clean energy by 2030 in electricity, transportation, and buildings.
Amid this success, Inslee is still out there pushing. Reacting to the Biden plan, he said that the former vice president’s proposals “really lacked teeth and they lack ambition that is necessary to defeat the climate crisis.” He added that the 30-year time horizon was simply too long, and that a president needs to tell fossil fuel companies, “we need to put the interests of these kids who have asthma ahead of these corporate profits.”
It was never guaranteed that climate would be a major consideration in the 2020 race. Time and again we’ve seen candidates pay lip service to the climate crisis and then move on to other, less challenging goals. Inslee has forced other candidates to not turn away. Last weekend he urged the Democratic National Committee to add a climate-focused debate to the primary calendar. Despite Inslee persuading 11 other candidates to lobby for this, on Wednesday the DNC told him they wouldn't host a climate-specific debate, and would bar anyone who participated in an outside debate on climate from future DNC debates. “The DNC is silencing the voices of Democratic activists, many of our progressive partner organizations, and nearly half of the Democratic presidential field, who want to debate the existential crisis of our time,” Inslee said in a statement, suggesting the fight isn’t over.
Leading with climate does not have to mean leaving other policies behind. Climate connects directly to rebuilding the economy, with clean tech investment jump-starting growth. Inslee also attempts to bring along a labor movement that’s sometimes been reticent to climate mobilization. His climate policy paper included a repeal of right-to-work laws, improved workplace unionization rules, and a climate-focused G.I. bill for fossil fuel workers and associated communities. This mirrors the clean energy law Inslee signed in Washington, which grants extra credits for companies that pay prevailing wages, have project labor agreements, and allow unions.
“I have more people in the building trades working per capita than anywhere in the United States,” Inslee said, citing tens of billions of dollars in transportation infrastructure projects in Washington. “Seventy percent of that is in green transportation, public transportation. So the trades in my state have recognized that green transportation is a huge job creator. The goal is to get people into a mindset where they can see themselves in a profitable, high-wage future.” Washington has been cited as the nation’s best place for business and for employees.
Mitigating the climate crisis is also an immigration policy, Inslee has argued. “We’re seeing climate migrants on our southern border today,” he said, noting the economic and environmental collapse that is already accompanying a warming planet. Inslee’s immigration policy would increase refugee admissions and seek a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented, but would also restore foreign aid to Northern Triangle nations and look to globally address climate to prevent a migration flood. “It’s a lot better to help them to maintain a healthy place in their original homes than force them to immigrate,” he said. “It’s a lot better to spend a dollar having a good economy in Central America than $100 on enforcement on our border.”
In a Wednesday speech in Detroit, Inslee made his climate policy an international relations policy. Inslee’s international relations agenda, which is 50 pages long, calls for going well beyond restoring the Paris Agreement. It would demand strong labor and environmental standards in all trade accords, tying them directly to the bulked-up Paris Agreement. And it would realize the G20’s commitment to phasing out financing for fossil fuel projects, working collaboratively with other nations to stamp out such production. If implemented, Inslee’s plan would bolster the reduction in climate pollution to a 50 percent global drop by 2030.
The climate-forward presidential campaign shouldn’t overshadow Inslee’s generally strong record as governor. Inslee just signed the first law implementing a public health insurance option in the nation. In Congress, he voted against the Iraq war, against the repeal of the Glass-Steagall separation between investment and commercial banks, and against the Hyde amendment restricting federal funding for abortion, which he reiterated amid Joe Biden’s continuing support for it. He voted for the 1994 assault weapons ban while representing a heavily Republican agricultural district, a vote that cost him his job but one he does not regret. (Inslee later returned to Congress in a bluer district before becoming Washington’s governor in 2012.) He supports eliminating the filibuster and the Electoral College to remove barriers to majority-rule democracy.
At last weekend’s California Democratic Convention, Inslee followed fellow presidential candidate John Hickenlooper to the podium. The former governor of Colorado decided to troll the crowd by denouncing socialism. Inslee felt compelled to depart from his prepared text and to ad-lib a new opening to his remarks: “I am a governor who thinks we shouldn't be ashamed of our progressive values,” he said.
There’s been a lot of talk about how Warren’s plan-based candidacy has created a virtuous circle for policy-based campaigns, with other candidates now showing their cards and highlighting their positions in their presentations. Inslee’s focus is having an even stronger effect, and could have a more lasting legacy, too. Pat Buchanan’s right-wing populist challenge in 1992 helped created a pathway for Donald Trump. We don’t have much time for Inslee’s climate crusade to take effect. But anything that might make it more likely is welcome.