Once again, thousands of protesters have rallied at the White House on Sunday to urge President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. They put on a solid showing with a clear, simple message:
Because President Obama announced last week that he, not the State Department, will personally make the final decision on Keystone XL, this issue is shaping up as a major litmus test for Obama's relationship with environmentalists. If he approves the pipeline he will face intense criticism from greens and progressives, many of whom supported him actively in the 2008 campaign. If he rejects the pipeline, he will be attacked mercilessly by conservatives and many mainstream pundits for capitulating.
But wait -- did you say a litmus test? All the Very Serious People, as Paul Krugman calls them, and many mainstream Democrats (overlapping groups, of course), oppose anything resembling a litmus test. Such all-or-nothing tactics are seen as excessive, or unbecoming, or extremist, or something. So we should expect that in the coming months, environmentalists will be subjected to much clucking of tongues and wagging of fingers regarding the Keystone XL litmus test. They will be pressed to deny that it is a litmus test, and will be criticized if they refuse.
This will be part of the next framing narrative of the Keystone XL issue in the coming months. Understanding litmus tests, how they work and who uses them is crucial.
When used judiciously and infrequently, litmus tests are a smart and necessary part of effective politics. A party or movement that is afraid to use them is destined to be treated as a doormat by the powers that be. Small-d democratic politics is not an ivory tower. It necessarily involves lots of push and pull -- and the occasional elbow jab to the solar plexus.
Environmentalists' and progressives' general reluctance to use litmus tests is a large part of the reason why they have been treated as doormats by the Obama administration, and by the Clinton administration before that.
Conservatives love litmus tests and have used them to enormous success, while liberals abhor them.
Below is a quick, back-of-the-envelope summary of litmus tests currently in use:
- Denial that global warming exists or is caused by human activity
- Drill, baby drill
- Pro-Ryan budget
- Pro-repeal of Roe v. Wade
- Pro-tax cuts for wealthy, anti-new taxes or fees
- Anti-gun control
- Anti-gay marriage
- Recognition that global warming exists and is largely caused by human activity
- Anti-repeal of Roe v. Wade
- Support for Social Security and Medicare
Get the difference? Conservatives' litmus tests tend to be numerous, aggressive and proactive, while the litmus tests of progressives and environmentalists are few and defensive.
Simply in terms of political tactics, the Keystone XL is an excellent choice to make for a litmus test. It's easy to understand and dramatic. The foreign-owned pipeline would bisect the nation, pumping dirty, high-carbon oil from the tar sands through America's prairies and farms, all the way down to the Texas coast. The visceral yet largely subconscious impact of this imagery among many patriotic Middle Americans should not be underestimated.
As Jake Schmidt noted last week on the NRDC Switchboard blog, there's one other major decision on Obama's plate -- whether to impose stiff new greenhouse gas emissions standards for power plants. This latter decision may have an even greater impact on total greenhouse gas emissions than the Keystone XL decision. But power plant regulations are hardly a bumper sticker subject, and it is unlikely to penetrate the popular consciousness. Keystone XL does all that, in spades. It is a perfect litmus test.