Every so often, someone in politics says something so preposterously hilarious that we’re at pains to prevent our coffee from exiting our noses.
So it went on Sunday morning, when Democratic national chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz opined on “Meet the Press” about the Obama administration’s decision to punt on the Keystone XL pipeline. The project, which would ship tar sands oil from Canada to Texas refineries, has been in limbo for five years. Team Obama decided in 2011 to postpone a decision until after the 2012 elections; last Friday, it decided to postpone a decision until after the 2014 elections.
But when asked about the timing of those punts, Wasserman Schultz said: “I want to make sure that the right decision is arrived at. And that the president makes that decision carefully, and he doesn’t factor politics into his decision. Which I don’t think he is.”
He doesn’t factor politics into his decision... What a thankless job she has, slinging bull with a straight face.
Anyone who thinks the timing of the latest punt is non-political must surely believe in unicorns. Obama is trying to stoke a robust midterm turnout from liberal Democrats, and he knows they’re more likely to stay home if he said yes to an oil project that they hate. Karl Rove was right (yes, he was) when he said this weekend on Fox News, “If course it was about politics. It’s all about politics.”
Rove knows what he’s talking about, because he similarly intertwined politics and policy when he was a George W. Bush operative. Back in March 2002, the Bush team suddenly scrapped its free-trade principles and slapped a 30 percent tariff on foreign steel in order to protect American steelworkers. The Bush team said with a straight face that its decision was solely based on good economics, but everyone knew what Rove, a key player in this episode, was really up to. He was doing political spadework for Bush’s ‘04 re-election bid, by wooing labor voters in key steelworker states like Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio.
We can endlessly debate the policy upsides and downsides of the Keystone pipeline - its job-creating potential (or lack thereof), its energy potential, its environmental impact (27 million additional tons of carbon dioxide pumped annually into the atmosphere, according to the State Department) - and these trade-offs are undoubtedly weighing on the Obama administration.
My focus is on the political factors that continue to vex the president. If Obama had decided to nix the pipeline prior to the midterms, he would’ve pleased his liberal base - but he would’ve further imperiled the red-state Democratic senators who are currently struggling to win re-election. Support for the pipeline is particularly strong in those states, and Republicans would’ve ratcheted up their efforts to tie the incumbents to a liberal president who’s perceived as hostile to oil.
On the other hand, if Obama had decided to OK the pipeline prior to the midterms, his liberal base, and many of his biggest liberal donors (most notably, billionaire Tom Steyer), would’ve gone ballistic. They view the Keystone decision as a major test of Obama’s willingness (or lack thereof) to combat global warming, so a Yes on the pipeline might well have closed the donors’ checkbooks and turned potential liberal voters into midterm couch potatoes.
By the way, the liberal base is out of the mainstream on Keystone. According to an ABC News-Washington Post poll last month, 65 percent of Americans - including 65 percent of independents - want the pipeline. Only 36 percent of self-identified liberal Democrats agree. We talk a lot here about how often the Republicans are beholden to their right-leaning base; on Keystone, it’s Obama beholden to his.
So, politically, it appears that his arguably best decision was to forego a decision (yet again). His punt leaves both Democratic factions somewhat dissatisfied, but, from the Obama team’s perspective, it would’ve been worse to choose.
Problem is, there will always be another election on the horizon - not surprisingly, likely 2016 candidate Hillary Clinton has yet to take a position on Keystone - so who knows when or whether this limbo will end....and whether anyone still believes what JFK said 52 years ago in Philadelphia: “Our responsibility is one of decision - for to govern is to choose.”
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at email@example.com.