AuthorScher, Bill

When Senator Joe Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer reached a climate bill agreement this summer, they managed to win a quick endorsement from Manchin's left-wing antagonists from the Sunrise Movement. The climate hawks pragmatically tweeted, "If 50 Senators are actually committed to voting for a package that reduces emissions by 40% by 2030, Congress must pass it immediately." A couple days later, Sunrise took a swipe at oil giant ExxonMobil on Twitter: "While we've watched our planet burn, Exxon made $18,000,000,000 this year. Big Oil is literally profiting off our destructions."

Sunrise may not have been aware that on the same day, the CEO of ExxonMobil was also praising the Schumer-Manchin deal. "We're pleased with the broader recognition that a more comprehensive set of solutions are going to be needed to ad dress the challenges of an energy transition," Darren Woods said on a second-quarter-earnings conference call.

ExxonMobil wasn't the only corporation to cheer the accord. Manchin's office produced a 33-page list of supportive statements from natural gas, nuclear, utility, manufacturing, and retail representatives, as well as from labor and environmental organizations.

Support was hardly universal in the business community. Washington's main oil and gas lobby, the American Petroleum Institute, organized a letter of opposition, joined by 58 other trade associations. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce produced another opposition letter, backed by 253 allied business groups and primarily focused on the bill's tax impacts. The pharmaceutical lobby criticized the bill's empowerment of Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices.

But without a united corporate front, what opposition existed was muted, lacking the firepower of a one-sided multimillion-dollar attack ad campaign. President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act on August 16, less than a month after Manchin and Schumer shook hands.

Manchin's support was mathematically necessary for Schumer to secure the minimum 50 votes to pass a filibuster-proof budget reconciliation bill. But Manchin's ability to stitch together a corporate-environmental coalition brought political value beyond the head count. He pacified corporate America by dividing it, removing a major obstacle from Democratic efforts to sell the bill to the public.

While Democrats are often rhetorically comfortable railing against corporations, they have a long history of smoothing the path for progressive legislation by picking off some corporations and dulling the edge of the opposition. For example, in 1934, as recounted in Arthur Schlesinger's The Coming of the New Deal, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was battling with the head of the New York Stock Exchange, Richard Whitney, over proposed legislation to regulate securities trading, his aides identified a "moderate Wall Street group." The traders of Whitney's exchange were an insular group. Other Wall Street investment bankers, Schlesinger explained, "had long resented the Whitney regime." They also had more contact with clients, which gave them a better read of public opinion.

The White House and congressional allies drove a wedge between the groups by crafting a bill that created a new Securities and Exchange Commission, but shied away from embedding rigid requirements in the statute.

More recently, regarding health care reform, Barack Obama accomplished what Bill Clinton could not, in part thanks to the help of the oft-loathed pharmaceutical industry. Sixteen years before, President Clinton and his health care point person, First Lady Hillary Clinton, viewed the insurance industry as an enemy to be defeated. The insurance industry responded--before the Clintons finished drafting any legislation--with a devastating $20 million ad campaign. A fictional married couple in the near future, "Harry and Louise," slogged through a pile of health care bills, complaining about services no longer covered and a lack of insurance plan choices. The more the Clintons attacked insurance companies, the more money the companies raised to fund the ad campaign. Spooked congressional Democrats didn't give the Clinton plan a vote.

Obama, in contrast, eagerly collaborated with a partnership between the progressive health advocates at Families USA and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the drugmakers lobbying operation. While developing the Affordable Care Act, Obama agreed to shelve proposals that could have allowed cheaper imported medicines, and in turn, the partnership funded a new "Harry and Louise" ad campaign, using the same actors but in support of the bill. The insurance industry donated $86 million to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's effort to kill the bill (while still negotiating with the White House in hopes of shaping it), but PhRMA's proreform ad campaign totaled $150 million. In the final weeks of the legislative effort, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $5.5 million in attack ads, then PhRMA countered with $6 million of its own.

Democrats have become increasingly anxious to address the intensifying climate crisis, but their legislative attempts to do so--from Clinton's ill-fated "BTU tax" to John Kerry's ultimately futile negotiations with Lindsey Graham--have been a series of belly flops.

Without the benefit of historical context, you might be inclined to view the Manchin-Schumer final product as an anomaly--the awkward result of an evenly divided Senate. But a look back at the past 30 years of climate bill failures, combined with a clear-eyed understanding of how other progressive breakthroughs came together, shows that what Schumer and Manchin did provides a template that Democrats will need to replicate if they are to build on their recent environmental success. Because whenever Democrats have tried to steamroll fossil fuel interests, they've been flattened. When they've divided those interests, they've...

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