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Jay Inslee is betting he can ride climate change to the White House

Jay Inslee is betting he can ride climate change to the White House
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks Feb. 14 at an event in Seattle held by the Alliance for Gun Responsibility. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

With his state’s economy roaring and Democrats having just retaken seven governorships nationally in no small part because of his efforts, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has a lot on his resume around which to build a traditional presidential candidacy.

Yet he is taking a leap of faith. He will run not on economic fairness or bolstering access to healthcare or equal rights. His campaign will instead be focused on the single issue that Inslee argues preempts all others — the climate crisis.

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Inslee, who is expected to officially enter the race in the coming days, would be the first candidate of a major party to focus a presidential run on an issue that is increasingly capturing the attention of voters, even as the politics of it remains full of peril.

“If I get into this race, it will be on this reason, for this reason, by this reason,” said Inslee, who speaks with the caveats of an undeclared candidate, even as members of his team acknowledge a launch is imminent.

“It is going to be for defeating climate change. It will be the first thing I say. It will be the launch vehicle for the rocket,” he said in an interview. “I will be the first candidate in history to say this has to be the No. 1 priority in the United States. This has to be the paramount duty of the United States.”

Washington state is a sturdy platform from which to build that case. The state has aggressively pursued climate action during Inslee’s tenure, advancing renewable energy goals, electric-car innovations, and efficiency requirements. The state’s economy continues to boom even as the transition to clean energy proceeds rapidly, making it a compelling counterpoint to arguments from President Trump and other Republicans that climate action is too costly, burdensome and destabilizing.

Yet Inslee’s experience as governor over the last six years also reflects the pitfalls of climate politics. He helped lead two failed crusades for far-reaching clean-energy ballot initiatives in 2016 and again in 2018. The measures aimed to restructure Washington’s economy around measures to combat climate change — through either a tax on carbon or a market-based cap and trade system. That’s the kind of action climate activists say will be crucial to keep warming below the threshold that climate scientists warn would be catastrophic. Voters balked.

A parallel legislative effort championed by Inslee has also fallen short, although he argues that there is now renewed energy behind the measures after climate-conscious Democrats flipped several legislative seats in November.

“Social change takes time,” Inslee said during the interview in Washington, D.C., where he had just participated in a news conference touting the plans of the seven new Democratic governors he helped elect while chair of the Democratic Governors Assn. “And during that period of time you lose, and you lose and you lose, and then you win.”

The governor, who is the author of a book about climate change and worked with former California Gov. Jerry Brown to establish an alliance of 21 states committed to reaching the goals in the Paris agreement on climate change, said the urgency of the problem requires it have the full attention of the White House now.

“It is the place to call America to a higher horizon of achievement,” Inslee said of the presidency. “We have never had a president to call America to this mission statement. We have got to have that.”

The strategy stands out to some as eccentric at a time Democratic voters are more focused on finding a candidate who can demonstrate a clear path to extracting Trump from the Oval Office rather than taking a bold political risk that could go sideways in the general election. But it gives the governor, who built his political career on climate action, a signature issue with which to stand out from a crowded field.

As Democratic presidential candidates glad-hand and speechify their way through Iowa, New Hampshire and other states early on the primary calendar, climate is already emerging as a bigger concern than in any prior election. A new poll commissioned by the liberal Center for American Progress found the warming climate to be virtually tied with healthcare as the top issue Democratic voters are concerned about in five early primary states, including California. That is a notable shift in public opinion compared with previous years, when climate ranked substantially lower among voter priorities.

“It has taken on a much more important role,” said Geoff Garin, one of the pollsters who conducted the survey. “Democratic voters see climate not only as an existential threat, but also see President Trump as doing real damage to the country’s climate policies. They are motivated on this.”

That could create an opening for Inslee.

“The moment may be ripe for a ‘climate first’ candidate,” Garin said. “Especially in a large and crowded field, somebody who sees climate as the kind of existential crisis that deserves this kind of focus may really stand out. … Voters notice when candidates single out an issue and attach greater importance to it than any other issue.”

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Inslee, though, doesn’t have a lock on climate voters. Whether his agenda will be bold enough to satisfy them also remains to be seen. He will be running against several candidates who embrace a Green New Deal that demands full decarbonization on a schedule that the Washington governor has suggested may not be realistic.

Like other dark-horse presidential candidates before him – particularly those who occupy a governor’s office – Inslee compares himself to former President Carter, who was the relatively unknown governor of Georgia when he jumped into the 1976 race. But he says he has something Carter didn’t: more experience than arguably any of his competitors in confronting an emergency that voters increasingly see as not just urgent, but existential.

“When I walked through Paradise, Calif., it looked like an apocalypse from a Hollywood movie,” said Inslee, who traveled to the California town destroyed by wildfire that global warming has exacerbated.

“But it was a real town of 25,000 people. Donald Trump can’t pronounce the name of that town, but we can demonstrate how devastating his climate denial has been. You can’t just wipe that away from the nightly news. This is real. People are seeing it with their own eyes.”

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