A Los Angeles forum on global warming Saturday provided three presidential candidates time to throw around vows to cut carbon emissions, spur a green economy and renew American leadership in the world.
But if the intent was to buff their green credentials, more than anything the gathering thrust into glaring relief the differing approaches of Democrats Dennis J. Kucinich, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards as each seeks the presidency.
First came Kucinich, the Ohio congressman and presidential longshot, who touted his modest-size house, efficient car and vegan diet as indicators of his personal parsimoniousness and vowed to guarantee an annual income to untold numbers of Americans.
Next came Clinton, the New York senator, who offered a stern argument for pragmatism, barked down a heckler and warned the audience that global warming legislation pending in the Senate would be too incremental for their taste -- even as she refused to say whether she would back it.
Last came Edwards, the former senator and former vice presidential nominee, who railed against corruption in government and challenged candidates to “put political calculation aside and actually stand up with a little backbone for what’s right.” He didn’t mention Clinton by name, nor did he need to.
For front-runner Clinton, sandwiched between two men whose talk of moral imperative clanged against her bent for compromise, the event was a reminder of why it is difficult for sitting senators to graduate to the White House. The mincing steps of legislating are hard to spin into political success -- particularly before an audience desiring aggressive leaps.
Kucinich had no such difficulty.
Unlike most of the candidate debates so far, where he has been relegated to the sidelines, the format Saturday gave him equal standing. The event, held at the Wadsworth Theatre before hundreds of activists, was sponsored by the online environmental group Grist, as well as a host of other environmental organizations, including the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund.
All of the Democratic and Republican candidates were invited, but only the three showed up. Each offered a 10-minute speech and then answered a panel of questioners, leaving the stage before the next candidate strode on.
Kucinich vowed an administration that would push “massive” spending on mass transit, incentives for renewable energy and environmentally safe construction techniques, and said he would use NASA to press the country to develop “green technologies.” And he contrasted the other candidates’ lifestyles with his -- replete with 1,600-square-foot home, dull-if-efficient sedan and restricted diet.
“If you want a leader who can reach out and lift this planet up, then we have to look at: How do you live?” he said.
He offered a precursor of Edwards’ later argument, countering a skeptical question about his ability to thwart the efforts of oil and gas companies to block global warming legislation.
“Imagine a president with no ties to those interest groups,” he said, adding: “Under a Kucinich administration, their control is broken.”
But he appeared to catch even fellow progressives by surprise when he promised to compensate coal miners and others whose livelihoods would be harmed by his environmental policies.
“I’m speaking of a guaranteed annual income,” he said.
“For everybody?” a panelist, looking surprised, asked.
“Absolutely,” Kucinich replied.
Clinton opened her remarks by saying she had put forth a “bold, comprehensive” plan to tackle energy independence. But she quickly slapped at both Kucinich and Edwards.
“You will hear speeches this afternoon from those who will certainly draw tremendous applause and shouts of agreement,” she said, “but I hope we are all here today because we are serious about what it is we intend to do together.”
Clinton struck many of the same themes as the other Democrats -- criticizing President Bush and vowing to dramatically reduce carbon emissions by midcentury and to unleash American innovation. She pledged to meet with leaders of other polluting nations every three months.
But she bridled at an interruption by a heckler -- “Were you invited to speak here this afternoon?” Clinton asked firmly -- and appeared to be preparing environmentalists for disappointment when it comes to future global warming laws.
She said a lesson from her failed 1990s effort to overhaul healthcare was that “everybody is also worried that people in politics are not going to be pure enough. . . . So your allies are not happy because you are not 100%, and your adversaries are thrilled because they’ve already divided you before you begin.
“So perhaps a thought that you might take away from this forum: There is no way that we will ever produce a piece of legislation that will get through the Congress that every one of you will agree with.”
But Clinton refused to say whether she would vote for the bill to which she appeared to be referring -- a measure that would curtail emissions, but not by as much as Clinton has proposed in the campaign.
“I can’t tell you how I will vote because I don’t know what the final bill is going to be,” she said. “On the one hand, it is nowhere near what I would want. . . . On the other hand, we have never gotten this far before.”
Edwards, too, offered a laundry list of proposals: cutting “carbon welfare” subsidies to big firms, encouraging “smart” energy grids, opening new energy markets. But his overall approach was a sharp rebuke to the senator who had just walked offstage. “The system in Washington, D.C., is broken and there is no better example of that than global warming,” he said.
“We know that the steps we need to take are right in front of us. All we have to do is have a little backbone and courage to actually do it. But Washington is not taking them, and when I look at Washington today I see politicians who are too afraid of rocking the boat to face the challenges in front of us.”
Without naming names, he said their goal was to placate lobbyists. “We have to ask ourselves a basic question: Are we willing to put political calculation aside and actually stand up with a little backbone for what’s right? Are we willing to say that the time for compromise and half-measures is over?
“The government has become corrupt, and we need to be honest about that,” he said to applause. “Why does America not have universal healthcare? We don’t have universal healthcare because of drug companies and insurance companies and their lobbyists. Why does America not attack global warming in the way that we need to? We know why we haven’t -- oil companies, power companies, gas companies and their lobbyists in Washington, D.C.”