“It’s the economy, stupid.” James Carville’s theme for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign rings just as true 20-odd years later. Pocketbook issues matter more to voters than anything else – and in 2014, American voters are going to be motivated by the granddaddy of them all.
I’m referring, of course, to President Barack Obama’s proposal on regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. It comes with a hefty price tag that will be felt by all Americans.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates the regulation will decrease the average household’s disposable income by $3,400 as a result of higher prices for energy and a slowdown to the economy. Those income reductions come in addition to an average of a quarter million jobs estimated to be lost each year through 2030.
That’s a big price for all of us to pay, especially when it’s projected that the regulations will only reduce global carbon emissions by 1.8 percent.
Obama’s proposed Environmental Protection Agency regulations for American power plants are shaping up to be the dominant issue in races across the country.
Nowhere is this more true than Montana, where we have the largest coal deposits in the nation, more than half our electricity production comes from coal and tens of thousands of working families depend on good-paying jobs in the energy industry. There’s little doubt the proposed EPA regulations would have a more profound impact in Montana than most other states.
The battle lines have already been drawn in Montana’s U.S. Senate race. Congressman Steve Daines recently introduced legislation to stop the EPA’s proposed greenhouse gas regulations unless they could ensure that the regulations would not eliminate jobs or have negative impacts to the economy.
Sen. John Walsh has taken up a position squarely opposite of Daines. He’s sided with the president in calling for more stringent rules on carbon emissions, and was the only major political candidate at an anti-coal rally in Billings earlier this spring.
The landscape in Montana’s congressional race is slightly less clear. Democratic candidate John Lewis has unveiled an energy policy that contains some support for Montana’s coal industry, though it stops short of opposing Obama’s EPA regulations. Republican Ryan Zinke has been more vocal in his support of Montana’s coal industry and has made it clear that he is firmly in opposition to the president’s proposal.
Certainly Walsh’s position has the most risk. Polling released by the National Mining Association shows more than 58 percent of Montanan voters are more likely to support a candidate opposed to the president’s green house gas regulations; only 31 percent of voters would be more likely to support a candidate who sides with the president.
But Walsh’s political calculus is more easily understood when campaign funding is entered into the equation. The same environmental groups who have been pushing for the regulation are also the dominate funders for Democratic Party politics. Walsh, who is almost $2 million behind in fundraising, will be very dependent on those outside, environmental groups to spend campaign money on his behalf.
Apparently, supporting the president’s unpopular regulation is a risk worth the campaign cash Walsh gets in return. But the big question remains: Will that outside spending be enough to overcome a pocketbook issue larger than any we’ve seen in years?
Former Republican Congressman Rick Hill served Montana in the United States Congress from 1997 to 2001. He resides in Helena.