The Corner

Are Democrats Tearing Themselves Apart?

No, that’s not a misprint. While the country has been focused on post-election divisions among Republicans, a major fault-line within the Democratic coalition has been steadily widening. A growing and rapidly radicalizing climate movement is ever-more at odds with Democrats devoted to traditional economic issues like jobs. The Keystone XL pipeline project is the focus of the fuss, of course, but it doesn’t stop there by a longshot. The political implications of this widening Democratic rift are only just beginning to come into view.

You know something’s up when Dr. Evil intervenes in what had once been a relatively placid Democratic Senate primary. We’ll know by tomorrow whether James Bond, Austin Powers, or someone else has managed to stop him.

I refer here to the ultimatum delivered by billionaire California “clean energy philanthropist” and Democratic activist, Tom Steyer, to Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate, Rep. Steve Lynch. Either withdraw support for the Keystone Pipeline by “high noon” this Friday, says Steyer, or face the consequences (an expensive, multi-pronged negative campaign devoted to exposing Lynch’s support for Keystone). A Lynch spokesman quickly dismissed Steyer’s gesture as “something out of a James Bond film–a billionaire making threats and issuing ultimatums that expire at ‘high noon.’”

Bond-villain or not, the archetypical political correctness of Steyer’s demand for a recantation on Keystone is perfectly suited to the mood of his movement. National Democrats haven’t yet realized what’s about to hit them, but they’re learning.

Only a few weeks ago, opposition to the Keystone pipeline seemed like an outlier position among Democrats. A Washington Post editorial dismissed the battle as a “trumped up” problem and “a counterproductive obsession.” New York Times columnist Joe Nocera went after the Keystone movement’s scientific patron-saint, James Hansen. President Obama himself seemed to be leaning toward approving the pipeline.

None of this has quieted opposition on the left. If anything, public objections to Keystone are becoming increasingly mainstream among Democrats. Tom Friedman said “No to Keystone. Yes to Crazy.” A New York Times editorial endorsed a crusade the Post had labeled a counterproductive obsession a week before. Splits continue to open up among Democrats on this issue.

Not to worry, say all those red state Democratic senators and representatives up for re-election. It’s a one-time problem, sure to be a faded memory by 2014. That’s where they’re wrong. Few observers on either side of the aisle have grasped how intensely many Democrats have latched onto the crusade against fossil fuels, especially young people and Democrats in coastal states.

A poll out yesterday showed that New York State voters had turned against fracking by a clear margin for the first time, this despite the economic wonder-working of this drilling revolution. If some of those voters were motivated by shaky pollution claims, rather than climate change, keep in mind that the climate movement is behind most of those pollution charges.

Massive margins against fracking in New York City tipped the balance against suburban and upstate voters. New York State Democrats oppose fracking by a mighty 62 to 21 percent. A new national poll (which may have been distorted somewhat by the way the questions were framed) also makes it clear that substantial numbers of Democrats–young voters in particular–are strongly focused on Keystone.

How are Democrats supposed to shake this internally divisive energy/climate issue? The Post complains that Keystone is a “trumped up” battle, but the movement that turned Keystone into an issue is perfectly capable of “trumping up” yet another Armageddon, and another after that. Bill McKibben and his allies demand a swift end to America’s use of fossil fuels. If and when Keystone fades as an issue, they’re bound to draw another line in the sand. Having secured backing from the New York Times for their Keystone campaign, these folks are not about to stop.

Should Obama say no to Keystone, McKibben and his allies will be further emboldened. If Obama says yes, the administration will redouble anti-carbon regulation in other areas, which will keep our new energy culture war at a boil. Given Obama’s recent moves on the climate front, the idea that the divisive campaign against fossil-fuels is going away is already fading.

Consider the fundamentals. Our economy runs on fossil fuels, yet an ever-growing number of Democrats at the heart of Obama’s base are literally convinced that the world is coming to an end because of it. This rapidly proliferating movement of Democratic voters has a near-religious determination to choke off the fuel that drives America’s economic engine. Each side of the Democratic split apparently sees the other as Dr. Evil, and at least one side is willing to reach across state lines to make the point. To understand this is to recognize that the Democrats’ political problem will not disappear after Keystone. It will only get worse.

Stanley Kurtz — Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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