Oct 8, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Pence looks to fracture Biden's lead via climate

kamala and pence
Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Getty Images photos: Eric Baradat/AFP and Alex Wong

The exchanges on climate and energy in last night's VP debate broke no new policy ground but did offer a window onto the campaigns' political strategies as Joe Biden leads heading into the final weeks.

Why it matters: The topics are getting prime-time love in the debates in sharp contrast to prior cycles, and the chasm between the platforms is immense.

Here are a few takeaways...

1. Fracking, fracking, fracking: Mike Pence said five times by my count that the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris team wants to ban fracking, the oil-and-gas extraction method that has enabled the U.S. production surge.

  • Reality check: Harris indeed called for a nationwide ban during her primary campaign. But it's not part of Biden's platform, and Harris said last night: "Joe Biden will not ban fracking. That is a fact."
  • Quick take: Pence’s decision to hit Harris on fracking, again and again, has plenty to do with the specifics of the political map as opposed to a broad-based appeal.
  • Fracking-enabled gas production is a big industry in Pennsylvania, a critical swing state, and also important in nearby Ohio — another large and competitive state that’s rich in electoral votes.
  • Trump carried both in 2016. And Texas, the heart of the U.S. oil boom, has also emerged as a potential pickup for Democrats despite being reliably Republican for a long time.
  • Catch up fast: A nationwide ban would require legislation that would be extraordinarily unlikely anyway. Biden's plan does call for ending permitting for new oil-and-gas projects on federal lands.
  • Of note: It's not clear at all from polling that Pence's position is a political winner in the crucial Pennsylvania contest, but clearly, the Trump campaign has decided that raising it repeatedly is the way to go. Anyway, this Generate edition last month tallied some of the polling.

2. It's all about the economy. The debate showed how energy and climate are deeply woven into the fabric of the campaigns' economic platforms, albeit in very different ways.

  • Harris repeatedly touted the ticket's proposal to invest in renewables as part of the wider, infrastructure-focused economic plans they want to move quickly.
  • Pence, meanwhile, repeatedly looked to tether Harris to the Green New Deal, which she co-sponsored in the Senate but Biden has not outright embraced, calling it an onerous plan. He also said Biden's energy plans would cost large numbers of jobs in fossil fuels.

3. Pence demurred on accepting climate science. He declined to answer moderator Susan Page's question about whether he accepts the science on the way climate change is making wildfires and hurricanes stronger and more dangerous.

  • He also suggested that the cause of climate change is an open question, contra the scientific consensus on the dominant human influence.
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