The election result that shocked the nation are causing Democrats to ask themselves how they did so poorly with working class voters in the middle of the country. There are many answers to the question, but as a veteran who has worked to elect progressive leaders from across the country, let me offer one step that Democrats could take immediately to demonstrate their commitment to economic growth, national security, and climate change in a way that actually resonates in the heartland. This requires only that lawmakers fully embrace policies like the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that support homegrown biofuels.
As a veteran, I've seen my fellow troops risk, and lose, their lives in places that are of strategic importance to the United States only because of oil. I've also met many who have returned home and are producing biofuels that grow local economies, increase our national security, and reduce carbon emissions. They are able to do this work because the RFS requires oil companies to blend biofuels into our national fuel supply.
The RFS is good policy. And while it might not be well known outside of the heartland, it's also good politics. Almost exactly a year before the election, Third Way published a report that showed strong messages around the RFS increased support for Democrat candidates in rural districts in the rural upper-Midwest - in places like Wisconsin, Iowa, and rural Michigan. The Third Way report analyzed data from congressional districts that had flipped from Democratic to Republican in 2010 and 2014. It noted that the RFS was very well known and popular with overwhelming majorities of moderate voters in these rural swing districts.
The report also noted that the issue had traditionally been viewed as a Democratic priority, and that Republicans, with their affinity for big oil and aversion to federal mandates, were generally on the losing side of the RFS with moderate voters.
This allowed Democrats to point to specific policies that were helping create jobs in rural districts, highlight Republicans ties to big oil, and illustrate local opportunities to reduce carbon emissions. It helped elect Democrats throughout rural America, and it had strong support from progressive leaders like Nancy Pelosi who saw the potential of the RFS to help her retake the majority.
But given the saliency of the RFS in these key districts, it didn't take long for Republicans to look for ways to exploit the issue.
First, we saw candidates like Senator Joni Ernst -- who initially said she opposed all energy mandates -- change positions and fully embrace the RFS. The GOP made room for candidates willing to embrace the RFS because it was clear that failure to do so helped Democrats win elections. And then, Democrats shot themselves in the foot.
The oil industry funded a series of reports questioning the environmental benefits of biofuels (and arguing, ridiculously, that oil from tar sands in Canada is better for the environment than renewable fuels from plants in the United States). Progressive Democrats from safe seats like Peter Welch of Vermont joined with oil patch Republicans to try kill the program, giving the GOP a key talking point in places like Wisconsin, Iowa and rural Michigan where mistrust of coastal elites has always run high. In addition, the Obama Administration proposed dramatic changes to the program that outraged voters in key rural districts. Instead of doubling down on an important link to rural America, Democrats gave the GOP a huge opening.
In 2016, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump fully embraced the RFS as candidates both in the primary and the general. But a week before the election, the Trump campaigned warned rural voters that, if elected, Hillary would weaken the RFS. They had evidence that showed Democrats wavering on their commitments. What had been a solid Democratic tool to reach rural voters in swing-districts had become a tool used by Donald Trump to attack Hillary Clinton. And ironically, a couple of weeks after the election, the Obama Administration fixed their mistake and finally got the program back on track. A good step, but too late to fix the political damage that had been done.
To be sure, Hillary did everything right when it came to supporting the RFS, and Trump will have to prove that he will stand up to his oil industry cronies serving as his energy advisors. But what had been a winning issue for Democrats became muddled because of missteps by Democrats who bought the oil industry spin and created a key opening for the GOP. Democrats were tone deaf to the damage done to their support in rural America by supporting oil industry efforts to repeal or "reform" the program.
Of course it's silly to argue that the Republican Party is the best positioned to stand up to the oil industry, and there are more Republicans than Democrats working to kill the RFS. But it's an important reminder to Democrats (and environmentalists) from the coasts that issues like the RFS are watched closely in the middle of the country. It's important to recognize that the some of the actions they've taken have made it more difficult for Democrats to win in these places. Democrats need strong messages that connect directly to the economic activity in these communities. They need strong national security messages that show they understand how dangerous our addiction to oil is for the United States. And they need strong environmental policies that create economic opportunities in rural America. The RFS does all of those things, and Democrats would be well-advised to take back the issue, especially if Donald Trump fails to fully keep his word.