Sometimes Winning Means Losing: The Candidacy of Jay Inslee

If any American government action adequately addresses the climate crisis, it will be the inheritor of Jay Inslee’s born-to-lose campaign.

Photo by  Jacinto Román .

Photo by Jacinto Román.

American public awareness often looks like a flock of starlings. It slews first one way, then another, deforming and reforming in a malleable way. This leaves the door open for enterprising politicians to enter the conversation and actively steer how the public thinks.

These flock-movers are primarily interested in sending a message. They aren’t front-runners, and for the most part, they probably don’t expect to get elected. Their aim is to change the politics of an issue. In 2019, with Greenland melting ahead of schedule and the Amazon in flames, Washington governor Jay Inslee decided to use the presidential election to force the climate crisis to the top of the national discussion, to demand its inclusion in debates, and to make his opponents address it. Now that his candidacy is over, we’re left to decide if he moved the conversation—and how his model of doing so could be a lesson for other candidates.

The strategy of running a campaign for reasons other than winning has a long and storied history. In the past, it’s been used to protest the Vietnam War—specifically to try and change Nixon’s mind about it—and to resist the expansion of slavery. It’s rare that a single-issue candidate wins, but they sometimes do affect other campaigns. The Free-Soil movement, for example, never got the presidency, but it ended up with enough alumni in the Republican Party to help sway it into an anti-slavery position. 

Kamikaze campaigning is a freeing idea, a way to access a large platform and be heard without dealing with the pressure of cinching office. A single-issue candidate can make big claims, focus and drive the conversation, and even take some risks that an actual contender wouldn’t dare. 

Inslee’s strategy was built on a few tactics. First was to prioritize, rhetorically, the climate crisis. This was apparent in his debate performances. Second was to produce detailed policy plans. Both of these tactics were arguably aimed at the media and other candidates—less so aimed at voters. Of course, the efficacy of these methods relies, to some degree, on pre-existing voter opinion on climate. But Inslee, as flock-mover, was trying to actively push the debate between political elites, which could bring voters along. 

Inslee had two options: go all in on climate change and nothing else, or present himself as a well-rounded candidate who happens to feel that climate change is a forefront issue. By focusing as much on climate as he did, he essentially declared himself a non-option to voters who wanted to hear from a candidate who spoke more to day-to-day problems like minimum wage and taxes. This didn’t necessarily help Inslee when he needed to be taken seriously by his own party; some analysts have pointed out that neither the Democratic party nor the debate moderators were particularly helpful to him. A more generalist candidate may have had an easier time, but even so, Inslee never intended to win. Working on other policies and answering questions about those would have been a waste of the time, always fated to be brief, that his campaign would have in the limelight. Plus, there’s nothing remarkable about a generalist candidate. A single-issue runner, however, is rare. That he was campaigning was itself enough to raise the question why, and since Inslee was only running to tell people that climate change was important, that was the only question that mattered. If nothing else, his presence moved the Overton Window, forcing people to mention the mere fact that some nut was running in the name of the Earth. 

But he did more than just shine a light on this issue; he also contributed substantive policy ideas. When he first rolled out his policies, his climate crisis plans were the most complete and comprehensive yet devised by a Presidential candidate, and because Inslee had to be analyzed as a legitimate candidate, people actually read them. 

The policies that Inslee outlines were badly needed. While individual concepts, such as carbon pricing and plastic bag bans, have gained some ground, and there’s support on the left for the Green New Deal, Inslee’s six climate action plans are the first holistic approach that is being taken seriously by several presidential candidates. It is helpful that it was presented not by embattled newcomers to federal government, but by an older and more established politician, one who has demonstrated that they can work within the system. The climate crisis is a systemic problem. It requires a systemic solution. Developing a holistic method of dealing with such an enormous issue requires a level of expertise that most politicians don’t have the time or inclination to cultivate. Inslee, lifelong activist and single-minded ringer of this very bell, used his primary campaign as an excuse to do nothing but think of a kickass set of climate policies. As a result, his may be the first attempts at climate policy that address multiple prongs of this many-forked problem. They may not end up being the very solutions that liberate us from disaster, but they are certainly the only type of solutions that can do so. They are organized and coordinated. Better yet, U.S. leadership with an Inslee-type holistic climate crisis action model could demonstrate effective climate fixes for the entire world, beginning a chain reaction that sees entire regions going green to keep up with America. If any government action solves the crisis, it will be the inheritor of Jay Inslee’s born-to-lose campaign. 

That doesn’t mean that these plans will ever be taken up by the eventual victor of this election, or that they remain the most ambitious. The fact that Inslee created these policies and forced them into the public eye means that other politicians, both Presidential candidates and local politicians, now have readymade policy tools available to manage the climate crisis. Inslee has done the work for everyone else. In fact, Elizabeth Warren has already benefited from Inslee’s work, meeting with him and adopting the goals of his plans. She’s been open about this, writing that Inslee’s ideas “should remain at the center of the agenda.” Castro has also consulted with Inslee about climate plans. Even if all current officeholders ignore the rest of Inslee’s effort once they achieve office, youth activists in the Sunrise Movement and its spiritual siblings will soon be capable of running themselves. Inslee’s ideas may have many enthusiastic fans in government given a few years. 

There were reasons why Inslee may have succeeded in making the Democratic field—and with it, the primary electorate—more climate-conscious and climate-serious. By publicizing his climate plans, Inslee set the benchmark for a climate conversation. His willingness to be criticized for an expensive, guns-blazing climate agenda demanded that other candidates step up their game. Bernie Sanders’s climate plan is the heir-apparent to Inslee’s as far as big budget and ambitions go, making the climate plans of Warren and Biden (roughly $3 trillion and $2 trillion apiece) look cheap in comparison. Better yet, this increased attention has obligated organizations like Moody’s to perform actual impact models and analyze climate rescue plans in depth. If Inslee hadn’t broken that seal, would the front runners have adopted such ambitious plans? Would analysts be seriously considering them? Probably not.

The Youth Climate Strike, the Sunrise Movement, and media coverage of the Amazonian and Congolese wildfires all speak to the rising tide of awareness that might have lifted Inslee’s ship. With the monetary cost of floods, fires, and hurricanes adding up, insurance and real estate sectors are beginning to respond to the crisis financially.

Considering all of these factors, maybe mainstream campaign debate on climate was bound to bubble up to the surface. It’s possible that Inslee just happened to be the one to be there at the right time. To be sure, there were some potential risks to Inslee’s strategy of running as the climate candidate without being incredibly well-known. While climate types knew him already, healthcare and education were higher priorities for Democratic primary voters according to a USA Today poll. Although about 53 percent of Democrats surveyed for that poll supported a Green New Deal, 87 percent wanted to tax the wealthy. A Voter Study Group analysis noted that only the most liberal of Democrats considered climate change a high priority. From this perspective, making climate the primary talking point of a campaign would have seemed eccentric at best, and at worst, detached from the demonstrated priorities of the base. This may be one reason why Inslee polled so low, although some analysts cited his relative obscurity and the crowded field as more likely barriers.

However, increasing his polling numbers would have been only one way to show success. Simply releasing detailed, bold policy plans repeatedly was a tactic that probably did draw media coverage and force other candidates to up their games on climate.To do that, he had to act like a lone missile nudging an earthbound asteroid. This is the butterfly effect of politics, the reason that the Free-Soil movement was important even though it never put a candidate in the Oval Office. 

Inslee’s campaign was ultimately for his opponents. It was part-demonstration, part-model, and entirely devoted to gifting politicians a politically palatable climate action plan. Inslee’s proposals have been copied by other candidates, analyzed by media outlets, and seen by political operatives across the world just because he was a factor in the U.S. election. He couldn’t have accomplished such a thing if he’d stayed local. If nothing else, it was worthwhile for him to stick his neck out just for that. His opponents can now either take his plans at face value, using them to propose environmental measures themselves, or take a page from his book. Failing to get the nomination doesn’t have to mean a bust for a Democratic candidate. On the contrary, it’s an opportunity to float legislative ideas that might otherwise never see the light of day. Furthermore, Warren has essentially adopted the entirety of Inslee’s plan as part of her own campaign. Inslee’s run may be over, but the plan will live on, and that was the whole point. There’s a lot of value in trying, even if it means losing in a traditional sense..

At this point, the climate crisis has clearly emerged from the backs of primary voters’ minds. A CNN climate town hall broadcast on September 4, echoing Inslee’s April town hall. First, Inslee released big, bold policy plans, one after the other, and now nearly every major candidate has a climate policy plan that prioritizes government investment, with big dollar signs attached. Now it falls to the remaining candidates to follow through on policies that will require a level of political courage unheard of in our modern age. They’ll need to reorganize budgets, cut deals, and compromise on unimaginable points. But most of all, they’ll need to keep this whopping campaign promise. That’s the most tenuous part of Inslee’s plan: trust. His climate action policies are now in the hands of people who could either use them to win an election or use them to save the world. 

Either way, he’s successfully gifted the nation with a much-needed vision of what survival could look like. Despite the disappointing slog of the debates and the fact that his own party seems to have squashed him at points, Inslee has actually pulled the dialogue in the right direction. That alone says something about what Americans will need to do to face the crisis and overcome it. We’ll need to be ready to fight, maybe lose, maybe reimagine what success looks like. 

Sometimes winning means not winning.

Anna Gooding-Call is a writer and environmental activist living in Salem, Massachusetts. She tweets @annagoodingcall.

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