Helton: 20 out of 20: Jay Inslee’s focus on climate is a breath of fresh air in hazy Democratic primary

He’s not a frontrunner, but the governor of Washington is making sure the environment leads his party’s agenda.


Roman Slabach

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee stopped by Paulson Electric Co. in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. Jay Inslee talked with CEO Tyler Olson about climate change and how solar panels help combat its effects.

Elijah Helton, Opinions Columnist

Before I started writing the 20 Out of 20 series, I made a list of 20 possible candidates I thought could or would make a run for president. Jay Inslee wasn’t one of them.

The Washington governor and former congressman didn’t possess a particularly interesting profile (another old white guy) nor a big name (I had barely heard of him) to make a meaningful attempt to become the Democratic nominee in 2020.

And while Inslee is indeed a 68-year-old white man with low name recognition, he’s managed to raise more than $1 million in quick order and put his name near the top of the tall stack of the other dark-horse campaigns. He’s managed all of this by running on a single basic issue: climate change.

While the race’s front-runners dance at the dawn of primary season, let’s take a look at a candidate who has to work before the sun sets on his quest from Washington to Washington.

Will he be nominated?

Let’s be sure not to overstate this guy’s chances: Inslee probably won’t be the one to face off against President Trump. There are at least half a dozen Democrats more likely to woo enough support to capture the nomination, but Inslee still has the capacity to influence the party even if he’s not at the top of the ticket.

He’s already on track to do that. By focusing almost entirely on climate change, Inslee can force more prominent candidates to guarantee the issue is among their top priorities. And this isn’t just one West Coast politician’s pet policy — Inslee raised more than $1 million soon after announcing his enviro-centric campaign. It’s clear there’s a sect of the party that want to put the planet first this election.

Of course, Inslee didn’t found the Green Movement, but his long pro-environment record has made his platform attractive in the era of the Green New Deal.

RELATED: Self-described “climate candidate” Jay Inslee makes first Iowa stop

And maybe he can do even more. I don’t think it’s entirely outside the realm of possibility that Inslee can pull off a primary win à la Jimmy Carter — a relatively obscure governor rising through a heavily crowded field of blockbuster candidates. Trump has worked hard to vilify most top Democratic candidates such as Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., so if Democrats want a candidate with minimal controversy, Inslee could take on that role with ease.

Will he beat Trump?

Keeping in mind it’s highly unlikely that he could secure the nomination, a scenario that pits Inslee against Trump would be a weird one to watch. An overall generic and somewhat serious public servant such as Inslee could serve as strong foil to a president whose demeanor ranges from rambunctious to ridiculous.

Remembering a more tranquil time in politics, nice-guy-governor personas used to be a common occupant of the White House. That label fits the aforementioned Carter and likewise for other former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. If Trump was supposed to shake things up, Inslee could bring some regularity  back to our political stomachs.

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Maybe Inslee isn’t exciting enough to lead the capital-”R” Resistance. Maybe the soaring left wing needs a more radical face and not just a guy from the other Washington. Maybe he can’t win a single delegate from any primary outside his home state.

And hey, unlike his fellow Washingtonian Howard Schultz, Inslee at least is willing to run his ideas through a party primary in the first place.

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