Tailpipe Wars: The Presidential Politics of U.S. Auto Emissions
May 1, 2020
Despite growing consensus that climate change is real, manmade, and pernicious, the U.S. Congress has failed to update old laws – to say nothing of passing new ones – that might mitigate the crisis. State governments have attempted to fill the void, with California setting de facto national policy using powers delegated under the 1970 Clean Air Act (CAA). The Trump administration’s 2019 bid to revoke these powers rejects the process of “iterative federalism” and leads one to believe Trump’s agenda is both vindictive in nature and impervious to broad support for environmental regulation. Yet this support (even in electorally pivotal states like Pennsylvania) proves a weak motivating factor next to the needs of vulnerable constituencies, notably autoworkers. Trump’s agenda is rationally set by his need to attract support in states like Michigan where votes are precious and regulatory exposure is high. Long a means for the federal government to enjoy environmental progress at a safe political distance, the “California carve-out” seems to have exhausted its utility with the Trump administration, which deems all environmental regulation anathema to growth and the happiness of its base. Trump’s rationale is best understood using Conditional Pandering Theory (CPT), which predicts that presidents with middling approval numbers are apt to be led by the public as Election Day draws near and policy outcomes can be delayed. In the case of emissions, policy outcomes are immaterial so long as targeted marginal voters deliver the president a second term.