Let’s set aside the easy hits and wisecracks. The Jay Inslee trail to the nomination is steep, long and arduous. But between the thickets of doubt and derision is a thin path toward daylight. And his early moves have been good ones.
Let’s survey the field: about 20 announced or likely candidates, ranging from the 37-year-old gay mayor of a city the size of Renton to a 76-year-old former vice president of the United States. In between are half a dozen senators, a handful of current or former governors and several House members in a hurry. Conclusion: no inevitable nominee. So how does a candidate get noticed in a crowded cattle call like this one?
You own an issue. And Inslee picked a good one: climate change.
Which at first glance looks like a loser. Poll after poll, year after year shows that Americans constantly rank “climate change” among their least important priorities. On a scale of issues, whether it’s 1 to 10 or 1 to 20, climate change usually ranks among the last three. In the Gallup midterm poll it showed up 10th out of 11th. And raising the temperature of the issue (pun intended) with increasingly dire doomsday predictions creates more ennui rather than alarm among the American people. Plenty of voters have seen this movie twice, once during the energy crisis of the early to mid-’70s, when administrations both Republican and Democratic assured us that the world was running out of oil, and again in the ’80s, when all the smart people predicted that the Reagan defense buildup would mean either a never-ending arms race or the world consumed in a nuclear mushroom cloud (remember “Target Seattle”?).
But within the Democratic Party, especially among caucus goers and primary voters, climate change is a much bigger deal. Among its strongest adherents it’s driven by an intensity bordering on religious fervor. Inslee himself calls opponents on the issue “climate agnostics.”
That translates into large platoons of loyal grassroots volunteers: young people or older activists who go door to door in the snow and pound in yard signs at all hours of the day and night. Who work at headquarters, expecting nothing more than a slice of pizza. The other candidates share Jay’s basic beliefs about climate change, and some are even further to the left of him on solutions, but Inslee has the most credibility on the issue because he’s been working it as priority one for more than a decade. And when he speaks on the issue, which is always, he avoids the Gore-like temptation of making silly predictions that don’t come true (Al Gore had the North Pole melting by 2013).
Climate change is also a "twofer.” It arouses the volunteers while also opening the checkbooks of the wealthy. There are people who run super PACs and even individual donors – Tom Steyer comes to mind – who throw massive amounts of money into environmental issues, particularly climate change. And they already know Jay Inslee on a first name basis. Early money quickly strengthens a nascent campaign.
The second smart move Jay Inslee made was announcing early.
There are more than half a dozen other likely candidates matching Inslee’s basic resume: veteran white guy politician in his 60s (or higher) aiming for the ultimate promotion. Most are touting their qualifications, experience, ability to get things done and how much they hate Donald Trump. But Inslee is well on his way to raising his second million dollars and is already building a campaign organization. If he had a few hundred million, he could wait a few more months. But he doesn't, which he can play to his advantage: “I’m one of the few white guys running for president who would actually get a raise in pay,” he says.
So let’s skip ahead 90 days. Elizabeth Warren is out of the race, and Kirsten Gillibrand is being overshadowed by Kamala Harris. So is Cory Booker. Bernie Sanders is showing surprising strength. As with Donald Trump, his support runs far deeper than the D.C. crowd realized when they were writing him off as someone whose use-by date ran out in 2016. Julian Castro is not gaining traction as the Hispanic Barack Obama. Neither is Beto O’Rourke as the white Barack Obama. Sen. Jeff Merkley passed on the race, and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper still can’t get noticed, and is in danger of being this year’s Martin O’Malley, despite being a far better governor. The gay mayor of South Bend, Ind., Peter Buttigieg performed well in early forums, but appears to be angling for the second half of the ticket. Joe Biden leads but is uninspiring.
The Inslee stump speech, where he leads with climate change while telling Democratic primary voters that he can turn the country as blue as Washington, now enters Phase II: “The American people aren’t just down on Donald Trump; they’re down on Washington, D.C.,” he says. “I think it helps to be a candidate from outside the Capitol. I live in Washington state, not Washington, D.C., but I’ve worked in D.C., and I know what’s wrong and how to fix it. Not just our climate, but our health care. Our immigration system. Our economy. Everything. That’s what voters want in November. What Democrats want right now is someone who can win. And when I run, I win.”
It’s how he distinguishes himself from Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, both of whom have run for president and lost, and both of whom are D.C. fixtures. Yes, I know that Donald Trump is unpopular, but Nancy Pelosi is less so. His opponents will point out that Inslee spent 14 years in D.C., but his response is something like this: “Yes, I served in Congress. But then I went home. I didn’t stay to build a career here. I went home and solved problems there. Now I want to solve them here.” Voters will like that.
The aim is getting to the Final Four, which will almost certainly include Kamala Harris and who knows who else. What happens at that point is more about fate, timing and luck. Even if all this works out — if he attracts the volunteers, continues raising the dough, gets early traction, watches opponents falling off the tree, picks up endorsements and perhaps exploit an awful weather event — it’s still uphill.
His age, his gender, his race are liabilities, not strengths. If he’s a finalist, he’s in the running for veep. If that doesn’t happen, he might be a favorite for Interior secretary or Environmental Protection Agency administrator, if the Dems win in 2020. And if they don’t? If Inslee pulls back early enough, he can run for another term as governor. Or he can make more than twice his salary doing commentary for a cable TV station while chairing a heritage environmental organization. Or starting his own. Whatever becomes of his campaign, this is a pretty good time to be Jay Inslee.