Voters, says Washington governor Jay Inslee, the only climate-first candidate in the 2020 presidential race, “are thirsting for information about the candidates.” It’s early on a Thursday, and Inslee has already appeared on both TV and radio this morning in New York, after headlining a CNN town hall late the night before in Washington. Now he’s leaning over a croissant and black coffee in the back of a Swedish café on Tenth Avenue, contemplating the task of introducing himself to the nation from his place near the back of the Democratic polling pack. “And I’m just one of them, obviously,” he says. The one sitting governor currently in the overflowing contest, Inslee — who also served in Congress — is headed to Iowa after we speak to inspect damage from recent flooding. There, he’ll rip Mike Pence’s professed ignorance on the causes of climate change, before participating in yet another media town hall, this one organized by NowThis News. And the fact that so many voters have open minds and are eager to listen to all this, he says, “means we can right the ship. It means we can still rescue the country. So that hope is still there. That’s been, really, a pleasant surprise.”
Did you see the recent report that Trump plans to run in 2020 on his environmental record?wind turbines cause cancer,” “Trump runs on his environmental record,” you have to think, Is this just out of the Onion?
Point taken. What do you make of the prospect of him actually doing it, though?born in Germany — when we know he was born in Kenya, by the way — will tell you anything. So no, nothing would shock us, but would that be successful? No. It won’t be successful, because — and Republicans know this too, the Republicans now are moving on climate change issues, the national number now is 75 percent, it’s gone up 10 percent in the last year, year and a half, because of increasing disasters, more people are recognizing this with visual evidence, personal evidence, it’s no longer a graph on a chart — the things he is doing are so palpably violative of any sense of health. He’s trying to strip our state’s ability to protect our clean water, he’s trying to take away a state’s ability to protect its own citizens. That doesn’t even wash with quite a number of Republicans in my state. I’m trying to think of an important protection of clean air or water that he has not threatened, from coal plants to CAFE, to now this latest assault on the clean water standards. So nothing would shock me, but I don’t think it would succeed.
You talk a lot about teaching D.C. about the way things work in “the other Washington,” but on the environmental front specifically, efforts to pass a carbon fee or tax have fallen short repeatedly. What lessons have you drawn from this experience when you face up to national policy?
Number two, I’ve learned the most powerful renewable fuel is perseverance — that’s the most important renewable energy source — and that it can succeed. You know, we’ve had successes in Washington, untrammeled and unstopped by temporary setbacks. So we have built a $6 billion wind-turbine industry because we narrowly passed a renewable portfolio standard. We have rapidly electrified our transportation system, we’re on track to meet our goal of 50,000 electric cars next year, and that will probably be second in the country, I think, as far as per capita electric cars. We’ve had success with our clean energy research and development fund, which has spun off some companies. We’ve had success with our charging infrastructure. We are, I think, likely to pass a 100 percent requirement for clean electrical grid this year in our legislature. I think we are likely to pass a ban on superfluids, hydrofluorocarbons. It looks good that we’ll move forward with a better building code to reduce waste and energy. So we’re having successes, and what I’ve also learned is the good news is there’s not just one avenue here, one tool. There’s multiple tools in the toolbox and you gotta use them all.
One of the reasons this is a high-profile national discussion right now, of course, is the Green New Deal, which you’ve praised and called aspirational. But from a tactical perspective, do you worry it’s too aspirational, that the opposition has found it easy to call it pie in the sky?
I’m interested in the Kennedy comparison. You make the same one in your book, but that came out 12 years ago. So you think about it with the same framework? Has the task not become more urgent?
One of your constituents, Bill Gates, has been making his own significant push on nuclear energy recently. Do you support the way he’s talking about it?
Okay, last question about one of your constituents. Are you surprised Howard Schultz is moving forward with his independent presidential exploration in a serious way?
Presumably you’ve had some sort of relationship with him in the past, as a business leader in the state?
How come the Democratic Party has never nominated a Westerner before?
The last Washingtonian to mount a serious run for the presidency was Scoop Jackson, in 1972 and 1976. Have you studied or considered lessons from his experience?
Speaking of positions with electoral consequences, your vote for the assault-weapons ban was widely seen as reason for losing your House seat in 1994. What lessons from that time do you still think about today?
When youconfronted the president on gun issues in the White House last year, did you know you were going to do it when you walked in?
When you say “he needs to be confronted” it sounds like you’ve thought about what your approach would be, maybe on the debate stage?
So what’s the approach? I mean, there really are a few different theories for the best way to confront him. Does it look like when you stood up in the White House?
While we’re talking about Trump, I want to go back to your House career for a second. When you got back to the House, it was right as the impeachment of President Clinton was happening. Does that experience inform your approach to the current moment? I know you’ve said you’re not fully for impeaching Trump right now, that you think people should focus on beating him in 2020, but does it color your thinking?
I think that we should continue this investigation. I think we should get the tax returns. I’ve been consistent on this. And then I’m also suggesting all Democratic candidates ought to release their tax returns, too, if we’re going to insist that he do it. We need the rest of my competitors to release theirs as well, and they ought to do that by Tax Day, at least. We gotta make sure that we’re hewing to the same rules we demand of Trump. Anyway, we need to continue the investigation, we need to look at the tax returns. And decisions could be made at a later date. That’s how I think of it.
I know what your answer has been when people have asked you about the super-PAC supporting your candidacy, but are you surprised that this is still an issue, or that you’re the only candidate with one right now?
That’s right, but the one supporting you seems like the only active one right now.
One thing a few candidates have said to me is they’re surprised — impressed, really — with the level of specificity that voters are eager to get into on the campaign trail. I assume you saw that Senator Sanders just rolled out a new version of his Medicare for All bill. How often do you find yourself confronted with things like the specifics of universal health-care policy that you didn’t necessarily anticipate?
So what did you make of Sanders’s new Medicare for All proposal?
It’s similar to what he’s said in the past.
Last one. Do you watch Game of Thrones?
Yeah. Okay, it was worth a shot. I wanted to ask if you subscribe to the theory that Winter is a climate metaphor.Game of Thrones. But somebody recently asked me about my favorite movie. It was The Wizard of Oz! There are some metaphors there. You need courage, you need scientific literacy, and you need a heart to care about people, right? So you gotta have all three of those. You gotta have the lion, the tin man, and the scarecrow to make this fly.
This article has been edited and condensed from an extended conversation.
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