Gov. Jay Inslee on holding a climate debate, Tom Steyer, Trump’s foreign policy

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Jay Inslee

2020 presidential candidate Gov. Jay Inslee speaks during an interview with POLITICO on Friday. | M. Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee spoke to POLITICO Friday as part of a series of interviews with Democrats seeking to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020.

Here are key excerpts from the hour-long conversation:

On why he got in the race

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“I just want to be able, on my last days, to look at my grandkids and say, ‘I did everything possible to solve the climate crisis’…and that is not going to happen unless the U.S. becomes a major leader in this, and that’s not going to happen unless we’re in presidential leadership. So, that’s when I decided to get into the race…so, relatively late. And not just a reaction to Donald Trump, although he is a pretty inspirational and unifying figure. But it is a reaction to a crisis that threatens all of our kids and grandkids.”

On when he’ll decide about seeking a third term

“I have not established any particular day. The presumption is, if I was not chosen to help the country, I will maintain a healthy state of Washington.”

On the climate conversation among 2020 Democrats

“Well, we had one robust conversation from my efforts. And others have had what I would call ‘soft recognitions’ of the problem. But there’s really only one candidate who has taken several unique positions. There is only one candidate who has said unequivocally and constantly and consistently that defeating the climate crisis has to be the top priority in the United States. It has to be the first, foremost and paramount duty of the next administration. It has to be the organizing principle of the next administration.”

On the first debate

“We had a total of seven minutes out of two hours to talk about the existential threat to life on the planet. And that was wholly unsatisfactory for voters to have any clue about the differences between the candidates. And so, we have suggested that we have a climate debate focused for a couple hours on this subject so that the public can understand the difference between the candidates. And I think it’s the right thing for the public. I think it’s the right thing for the party, in part because the grander party is the only party that really gets it in this regard. I think we have a great party.

And I’m particularly disagreeing with a party that is blacklisting Democrats who would be willing to have a debate on climate change. And this has infuriated a lot of good Democrats around the country to put people in the blacklist, because they’ve said basically, ‘Anybody who does participate in a climate change debate cannot have access to the Democratic stage.’ That’s just nuts. So, there is an ongoing effort in this regard to have a full-scale debate. It will be voted on at the National Committee executive meeting in late August. And there’s been 200,000 signatures given to the party to move forward, there’s been nine states that have indicated they will support that. We’ll see what will happen.”

On other single-issue debates

“There’s 12 debates. It might make sense to have one on climate change and one on health care, and maybe there’s something else. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I actually think that’s better than having 12 debates where everybody gives the same answer for only 60 seconds, and nobody really understands what the real differences are. But I would also suggest that there are a lot of great issues to work on. I’ve had a lot of success on those issues: We’ve created the best financial-aid package in the United States for college students. We’ve adopted the first long-term care program in the United States for the elderly. We have adopted the first public option for the nation. We’ve got the NRA on the run with three of the strongest gun safety laws in the United States. I’ve just got the biggest teacher pay increase in the United States.

But those things cannot be solved and become relatively moot if the entire ecosystem collapses on which human life depends. This is a unique issue. It is unique because our survival literally depends upon it. And if you don’t want to have your own debate, at least allow Democratic candidates to go and have a full-scale climate debate in some other forum, which they’ve essentially tried to shut down. So, either one of those are satisfactory to me, in a sense, to better the party.”

On selling climate legislation to the public

“The public sentiment is moving very rapidly on this. And the reason is not because of my eloquent speeches, it is because people are now seeing, in real terms, the real destruction in their real lives. It’s hard to be knee-deep in Hamburg, Iowa, and watch the ashes of Paradise, California, and not think we should do something about this. So, the public now is changing fairly dramatically on this. And I would suggest we need a couple things. We need presidential leadership. And I’ve seen what that means having listened to the call of John F. Kennedy to go to the moon. I’ve seen what presidential leadership can do to spark a latent power in the American public. That counts for something. We do need some more votes in the Senate to have a majority of Democratic senators to get this job done.”

On the filibuster

“We need to take away the filibuster from Mitch McConnell. And this is something, I was the first candidate to say this. And still there’s only one senator who’s joining me in this regard. And this is a dirty little secret in the U.S. Senate. My opponents, the other aspirants in the race, have really sincere, powerful things they want to get done. None of which we have a chance in Hell at getting done if they continue to cling to this filibuster.

There is no way that Mitch McConnell is going to let major climate-change legislation to the floor of the Senate, even if we have 59 votes. He’s just not going to let it happen. People want a single-payer health care system — you think Mitch McConnell’s gonna let that to the floor of the Senate as long as he’s got the filibuster? Even if we had 59 votes for it. So, there’s a huge failure to recognize and really stand up and be counted on progressive progress by some of the most quote “progressive candidates” in this race. How the heck can Bernie Sanders say we need a single-payer system when he continues to support the filibuster? He is supporting that which makes the single-payer system an absolute impossibility.”

On how to phase out fossil-fuel production

“By stopping the unnecessary infrastructure projects that would lock us into another 60, 70 years of fossil-fuel usage. It is one of the reasons that I came out against the Line 5 Enbridge pipeline under Lake Michigan a couple days ago. We have to realize we cannot continue building new fossil-fuel infrastructure that would lock in multiple decades of fossil-fuel usage. So, one of the things we have to do is evaluate major infrastructure, new infrastructure projects, with that in mind. And in my plan, I call for a mechanism of doing that through federal regulation.”

On a green-jobs message

“When I co-authored a book about this 12 years ago — by the way, the movie rights are still available… the title was not ‘Polar Bears and Why I Love Them.’ The title was, essentially, how do we build jobs, good-paying jobs, around a message of economic rebirth through this system of job creation?

…When people are spinning carbon fiber that goes in the BMW electric car, it’s not Seattle, it’s Grays Harbor, Washington, where people are making biofuels, using feedstock from Iowa, to make biofuels. It’s out in Nevada, where people out in the desert in Nevada, are installing solar panels … And importantly, this is really important, it’s every neighborhood in America, retrofitting every building in America. This is the biggest infrastructure project since the interstate freeway system. And it’s carpenters and laborers and plumbers and sheet metal workers rebuilding our entire building style. So, every house and building you’ve been looking at right now is part of our clean energy … the reason I say this is some people think when they hear clean energy, they think just solar panels, and they think it’s physicists. No, it’s people with a hammer and a saw. So, that’s a jobs message to people.”

On Trump’s environment speech

“He showed his biggest vulnerability three days ago, because his team recognized his biggest vulnerability. The widest, most vulnerable chink in his armor, is environmental issues. His team went to him and said, ‘Donald, you are hemorrhaging voters in the suburbs of America. Particularly women voters who believe you are cratering every environmental law you ever met.’ Which he is doing. ‘You have to do something about this!’

His response … was to go out and make a fool of himself to try to argue that he’s an environmentalist just as much as he is a feminist. So, he demonstrated his vulnerability on this subject. And this is the lowest approval rating on any issue of Donald Trump, is on environmental, clean air and clean water issues. So, he has shown us the place — he’s walked around, he’s put a big ‘Kick Me’ sign on his back on this issue. We should indulge him on that request. And we should indulge him by finding our strongest candidate on his weakest issue. And I would nominate myself in that regard.”

On Tom Steyer getting in the race

“It hasn’t changed my fundamental approach. I will continue to say that I continue to be unique, as the only candidate, even now, who says this has to be the top priority in the next administration. And I will organize my administration around that fundamental principle. And I’m the only candidate who’s said that, even now.

…I haven’t talked to him since he got into the race. It was a surprise to me.”

On whether Democrats ignore the West Coast

“It would be, like, facile for me to say yes, you’re giving me a softball question here going, ‘Why doesn’t Jay swing at it?’ Right? So, let me answer your question. The answer is: It would be a good thing for the Democratic Party to be in touch with some ideas that represent the future, rather than just the past.

The West does represent a lot of things in our future, including a clean-energy resurgence and a recognition of the importance of this. The West Coast has been giving birth to leaders who actually have emphasized this issue. Not including Sen. (Kamala) Harris, by the way, who largely has not been engaged in this issue.”

On his contrast with Trump

“I would argue that my story is the perfect template for success to blow up Donald Trump’s theory of the case. And the reason is, everything he has said is bad for the economy, in job performance, going back to what your initial question was, we have shown is good for the economy. He has said, ‘If you’re raising minimum wage it’ll be bad for the economy.’ Well, we have the highest minimum wage in the United States in our state, and we have the most rapid GDP growth, the most rapid wage growth. Interesting, my state in the same week was referenced by Business Insider, Forbes, referred to as the best place to do business, and Oxfam listed as the best place to be employed in the same week.

…So, I would argue, on the fundamental message of economic growth, my state is a tremendous Exhibit A of how progressive values will breed economic growth. Others have plans, I have laws. Others have ideas, I have experience and productivity, productive growth in the real world. And I think that’s a good thing to bring to this fight against Donald Trump.”

On whether Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should criticize Democrats

“Do I wish? First off it doesn’t matter what I wish. What I would say is, I would always encourage people to find constructive ways to have that tension, even publicly, without damaging their relationships. And without damaging their abilities to get reelected. I will say that. And there are ways to do that. I encourage everybody to be a part of that.

But I would say that there is a place for different people in the caucus to have different roles that can be productive. There is a role for people to be pushing to the perfect at the fastest rate possible. That’s an important role for people in a caucus. And there is an important role for a leader of the caucus to be able to fashion something that actually gets done when it has to get done … So, the leaders’ role is very important as well. And I respect both.”

On Trump’s foreign policy

“He shouldn’t have the keys to a golf cart. No, I have zero confidence in Donald Trump. I have huge concerns about his ability to be within 1,000 yards of any nuclear weapon or command and control system. His instability is terrifying to me. He has weakened the United States’ national security every way he can by removing the ability to bring alliances to bear on North Korea or Iran or on climate change or in any direct — Venezuela or anything else. He has severely weakened our ability to be effective in protecting international security because he has eliminated virtually every alliance, to have a working relationship with every alliance we have. We are stronger in an alliance against North Korea than singularly. We are stronger in an alliance involving Iran than singularly. And he has made us a single actor. So, he has weakened our ability significantly.”

On nuclear proliferation

“I do believe that we have to expand the international discussion to go well beyond limiting the number or even type of warheads to a new discussion of the command and control systems of these systems. They’re all on a hair trigger. You cannot continue to have thousands of warheads on a hair trigger and not have, at some point, some accidental discharge. And I believe this is one of the things we have to encourage.

…I believe we have to reach international agreements, where you cannot launch without 24-, 48-hour systems, where everyone knows you’re heading to the button, so that it allows people to have some discussion before an accidental discharge. There have been two instances in the last 30 years: once when the U.S. believed we were under a full-scale Soviet attack in our command center. And once when the Soviets believed there were six warheads headed toward Moscow. Twice. That’s already happened twice. So, I believe we have to change the command and control system where it can’t launch within a reasonable period of time, and the world knows you’re heading towards a launch.”

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