Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced this week that he won’t run for reelection next year, at the end of his third term as governor. I’m sure that, for most of the country, the news was met with at best a shrug. Outside of Washington, Inslee, who never really successfully transitioned to the national stage, is largely an unknown quantity. But when the history books of this era are written, I’d venture that Inslee will come to occupy a significant place in the story of American politics in the age of climate crisis.
The governor, who has been in office longer than any other current Democratic gubernatorial incumbent, has long put climate change at the forefront of his politics. Since well before it was deemed to be politically useful to be green, Inslee has prioritized environmental policy. He briefly ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2019, campaigning on a pledge to make environmental policy the core of his platform, with goals that included net-zero emissions for the entire US economy by 2045. Transportation and construction would have been required to move over entirely to renewable energy sources as early as 2030. That’s even more ambitious than the timetable to go green set out by California under Gavin Newsom, which has been so instrumental in providing the Biden administration with cover to push more stringent CO2 emissions reduction mandates.
Inslee’s policies were startlingly ambitious. He called for a 10-year, $9 trillion plan to rapidly green the US economy, for “polluter pays” fees on large corporate polluters, and he argued that US foreign policy priorities have to be reshaped around climate change. He also pushed for environmental justice solutions to be embedded in any federal climate change strategy, promoting a requirement that 40 percent of federal clean energy investments be plowed into communities on the front lines of climate change. The Clean Energy Transition Institute concluded that, of all the presidential candidates, Inslee was offering the clearest set of policy goals on climate change.
But despite, or maybe because of, the jaw-dropping ambitions of Inslee’s environmental proposals, his campaign never gained traction. The Washington governor dropped out early, in August 2019, having failed to secure enough support in opinion polls to make it onto the debate stage with the main Democratic hopefuls. His legacy, however, has been to shift the center of the Democratic Party significantly, and rapidly, leftward on environmental issues. It’s up for argument whether President Biden would have emphasized a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, or expended as much political capital on getting his climate change legislation through a closely divided Congress as he did, had Inslee and others not broken ground on the issue first.
At a state level, Inslee has been far more successful in pushing forward his ambitious environmental agenda. In May 2021, during the pandemic disruptions, the governor signed a package of climate legislation that included environmental justice policies, requirements to reduce the amount of single-use plastic, efforts to limit hydrofluorocarbon pollution, and, at the center of it all, the Climate Commitment Act. The latter, the provisions of which kicked in this past January, created what was called a “cap and invest” program—capping the amounts of climate-warming pollutants that could be released, and lowering that cap annually, as well as freeing up large amounts of state money to invest in clean transportation and energy. At the same time, the act created an Office of Climate Commitment Accountability to coordinate the implementation of the growing number of climate change laws in the state.
Inslee has never been a spotlight seeker. He is a low-key politician who, outside of the national spotlight, has secured passage of some of the world’s most ambitious policies to counter global warming. Now, at the age of 72, he has decided that the time has come to move over and let a new generation of politicians take on the challenges of the moment.
There are lessons to be learned in this elegant retreat from the public eye. Take, for example, the ongoing spectacle that is Diane Feinstein’s last hurrah. Feinstein, nearing 90, has been unable to attend Senate meetings or to discharge the basic duties of her job as senior senator from California for two months, after she came down with shingles and had to be hospitalized. Even before then, however, it was an open secret on Capitol Hill that she was facing significant memory impairments and other impediments of old age. Because of Feinstein’s absence, Biden judicial nominations are being bottled up in a now evenly divided Senate Judiciary Committee.
In recent weeks, the chorus of Democrats calling on Feinstein to resign has grown louder. In mid-April, progressive Representative Ro Khanna added his voice to this chorus. At the end of the month, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called on the senator to immediately resign, as did Rashida Tlaib. So far, however, none of Feinstein’s colleagues in the Senate have publicly stated that she needs to step aside.
Collegiality is one thing, but this is an absurdity. There’s no earthly reason why an ailing near-nonagenarian shouldn’t pass the torch, particularly given the consequences of her absence and the ability it gives the GOP to block Biden’s judicial nominations. It’s way past time for Feinstein to follow Inslee’s lead and to gracefully retire from the fray while her legacy is still relatively intact. The longer she resists the inevitable, the more this sorry final act will come to define her storied political career.