Jay Inslee: Washington On Your Side

Credit: Jay Inslee

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This Spring, the Berkeley Public Policy Journal will profile the (many) candidates vying to become the next President of the United States. Starting Tuesday, March 5 – a calendar year before Super Tuesday – BPPJ will feature weekly posts written by Goldman students who are taking a look at who’s running and why. We note that these posts feature author opinions that do not represent BPPJ, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.

By Ben Menzies

Jay Inslee is Governor of Washington, a position to which he was elected in 2012 following several terms in Congress. Inslee began his political career in Yakima, Washington, which is located in the rural, inland, heavily agricultural eastern portion of the state that is known for having more conservative politics than the reliably Democratic western side. After representing the area for one term, Inslee lost his reelection race and only returned to elected office several years later, this time representing a solidly Democratic district in Seattle. In 2012, Inslee extended Washington Democrats’ remarkable winning streak in the race for governor, which Democrats have won in every election since 1984 despite consistently narrow margins (and a 2004 recount during the closest gubernatorial election in American history). However, that same year Republicans gained a seat in the Washington State Senate, prompting a revolt in the chamber that swung control to a new coalition of Republicans and two conservative Democrats over the nominal Democratic majority. For the next five years, Inslee found himself constantly at odds with this conservative caucus, which successfully blocked his major proposals during a series of complicated budget showdowns. Since regaining control of the legislature, Inslee has continued to encounter difficulty in advancing his policy agenda as an outgoing governor. For instance, despite vocal leadership from Inslee and an appetite for climate action among Washingtonians, two ballot initiatives to establish a state carbon tax have failed in the last three years.

Inslee has articulated just one top policy priority: climate change. For years, he has positioned himself as a national leader on climate policy, agitating for national action and pushing a series of proposals in Washington to establish a price on greenhouse gases and reduce the state’s emissions. Inslee has been clear that climate change is the central animating issue behind his campaign, although he has offered little detail on what exactly his approach to climate policy would be if elected. He has spoken favorably of the “Green New Deal” framework advanced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, among others, but stopped short of endorsing it outright, instead emphasizing continuity between the Green New Deal and his longstanding advocacy for “a major industrial transformation to decarbonize the US economy.”

Inslee’s other policy goals tend to be about the structure of the federal government itself and its capacity to pass robust climate action. For instance, he has argued for eliminating the Senate filibuster on the grounds that it would make robust climate policies virtually impossible to pass given the dominance of senators representing states dependent on fossil fuel industries. Inslee has also endorsed statehood for Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, justified partially on the basis that it might dilute opposition to climate policy by adding new, reliably liberal votes to the House and Senate.

Why is he interesting?

Inslee occupies a unique space in the 2020 field. As a fairly popular second-term governor of a medium-sized blue state, Inslee’s profile reads like a frontrunner for the nomination, not a third-tier single-issue candidate. He has national political experience after his years in Congress, and his reliably liberal voting record places him in the ideological center of the increasingly left-leaning Democratic Party. He has cultivated a reputation as a leader on an issue, climate change, that Democrats rank among the most important issues, even though no major 2020 contender has offered a signature climate policy (unlike the attention given to Kamala Harris’s LIFT Act or Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax). So why is Jay Inslee in the position of struggling to make it onto the main stage of the first presidential debate?

One obvious reason is his lack of name recognition; even in Washington state, it is not easy to find people with anything more than extremely limited knowledge of Inslee, and nationally he is basically unknown. He is also an older white, straight man in a party with a base that is increasingly younger, less white, and less male. Essentially, he is competing with candidates who may be better representational fits for the party as it exists today. While a competent speaker, Inslee has never had a reputation for eloquence, and his focus on climate change and state issues means that he has not actively affiliated himself with any of the factions on the host of issues dividing Democratic candidates, making it tricky for him to get into the primary conversation at all. And climate change, while increasingly on the minds of Democrats, remains a lower-tier issue in American politics than mainstays like health care and taxes.

The structural problem for Inslee, however, is that it seems clear he is more interested in policy details than articulating a broad, aspirational vision of politics, yet the legislative particulars of his time as governor and in Congress have left him with no compelling policy accomplishments to point to. Inslee’s failure to enact significant climate action is the result of many factors outside his control, but it seems unlikely that federal opposition to his climate policies would be any less robust than in Olympia. As a candidate running explicitly to increase the profile of a specific issue, the question of how he would actually deal with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is largely irrelevant, and Inslee may consider his campaign a success if it attracts a small group of supporters dedicated to committing Democrats to aggressive climate action. But at the moment, Inslee lacks any particulars to his climate focus, an odd position for an alleged wonk, and there is nothing in his career that suggests he would be comfortable occupying the idealistic space of a Bernie Sanders. There is clearly space in the Democratic field for a serious climate candidate, and the party would benefit from its frontrunners being held accountable on an issue of such critical importance. But if Inslee wants to have a real effect on the field, he will need to make a better case for what his proposals actually are. Otherwise, voters will have plenty of other, more compelling choices in candidates who pay lip service to climate change without a clear commitment to significant climate policy.  

Ben Menzies is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and an Editor in Chief of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal.

This article is an opinion piece, and the opinions expressed represent the author alone. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.