In 1886, Randolph Churchill – father of Winston and darling of the Tory right – described disdainfully then-Prime Minister William Gladstone’s wish to urgently press ahead with home rule for Ireland as “the ambition of an old man in a hurry.” At 76, the premise goes, Gladstone was rushing through a “farrago of superlative nonsense” in which “the British constitution is to be torn up” in order that he might bring a solution to the Irish Question before the end of his political, and indeed natural, life.
Fast forward 134 years and the parallels with President-Elect Joe Biden, another deeply religious septuagenarian who has drifted left over the course of his career, are stark. His entire premise of running for President for the third time had a messianic quality to it: that despite the diverse array of younger talented Democrats vying for the nomination, who might seem better suited to the party’s zeitgeist, he alone could take down Donald Trump and “restore the soul of the nation”. Looking at the down-ballot results, where Biden significantly outperformed congressional Democrats in key swing states, what some saw as a conceit is likely to have been very accurate.
Biden may have now won, but the crusade is just beginning. And as Ireland was to Gladstone, so climate change is to the new President-elect: a seemingly intractable ticking time bomb that numerous leaders in the past have tried and failed to resolve. And while Irish home rule was thwarted by a Conservative House of Lords, it seems highly likely that Joe Biden will face a Republican-controlled Senate. Diplomacy, cajoling and executive action therefore play an outsize role.
The President-elect has wasted no time in making his climate priority clear: appointing his friend John Kerry, with whom he served 24 years in the Senate and four in the Obama administration, as “Climate Change Envoy”. He joins Antony Blinken, another Obama administration alumnus and Biden’s pick for Secretary of State, as a dependable and experienced pair of hands tasked with repairing relationships across the globe and signing the US back up to the Paris climate agreement. Those looking for a break from the never-ending soap opera of the Trump administration, with characters evicted on a weekly basis, are likely to be satisfied.
This ‘return to normalcy’ is all well and good – but breaking open a time capsule and recreating a sedate version of the West Wing risks a certain naivety. Democrats may have looked down on the entertainment backgrounds of Ronald Regan and Donald Trump, believing themselves to be above such things. But the only Democrats to serve two terms since the war, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, were themselves superstars, able to command the attention of popular culture and opinion outside a political bubble.
It’s also worth remembering that the key audience for the Biden agenda on climate change isn’t international – but domestic. Getting buy-in to a transition to a low-carbon economy will require reframing the argument, especially for blue collar workers in states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, as a job creator not a job killer. The scale of such a persuasion campaign is too immense to be left to traditional political figureheads.
The answer may however be staring the incoming administration in the face. A figure with a celebrity draw and machismo that surpasses even that of Donald Trump, yet politically dextrous and sharing entirely Joe Biden’s sense of urgency around saving the planet: none other than Mr Universe turned Terminator turned California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He has spent the past four years continuously attacking the Trump administration on climate change and pollution – able to go cycling with Greta Thunberg, while even at 73 remaining the godfather of the global fitness community. Whatever most people’s stereotypes and irritations are about elite coastal liberal environmentalists – and they have many – Schwarzenegger still personifies the exact opposite.
So if Joe Biden wants to display unity and invite a Republican into his Cabinet, he could do a lot worse than Energy Secretary Schwarzenegger. The idea was in fact suggested by some soon after Obama’s first election in 2008, but the political argument is now far more compelling. For a party with a growing ‘blue collar problem’, it’s easy to imagine ‘the Governator’ criss-crossing the Midwest and heavily Latino communities in the Sun Belt, attracting huge crowds to extol the virtues of solar power and clean air, while throwing in some movie quotes and a pec bounce. He would be uniquely placed to use this bully pulpit to take fellow Republicans to task, in states that will be crucial in the 2022 midterms, if they refuse to play ball with the administration.
Even in the era of the permanent campaign, some Democrats may feel uncomfortable and look down on the sad realities of politics-come-entertainment. But on the issue closest to his heart, the President elect could do worse than saying to Arnie, ‘come with me if you want the planet to live’.
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