Assessing Jay Inslee’s chance of being the Democratic Party’s nominee for president, let alone winning the White House in 2020, is an exercise in pure speculation.
But then, everything about the 2020 presidential race is speculation this point.
Inslee made his run for president official in a YouTube video posted before dawn on Friday, following it a few hours later with a speech at a South Seattle solar-panel installation company to underscore his call for renewable energy to fight climate change.
A recent survey by Morning Consult of 624 Democratic voters listed Inslee 16th out of 19 possible primary candidates listed, with 3 percent saying they would definitely vote for Inslee and 9 percent responding they probably would vote for him. Topping the list was former Vice President Joe Biden, with 72 percent saying they would either definitely or probably vote for him, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, with 64 percent either definitely or probably planning to vote for him.
That makes Inslee a clear long shot slightly less than a year before the caucus and precinct processes start. But Donald Trump was a long shot in 2015. Barack Obama was a long shot in 2007. Bill Clinton was a long shot in 1991. Jimmy Carter was a long shot in 1975.
It is possible to compare Inslee’s pluses and minuses as a candidate against those of the other announced and potential candidates.
On the plus side, he is currently the only governor in the race. The Democratic primary race is awash in United States senators, none of whom were previously a governor, although some have executive experience. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker was the mayor of a large city, Newark; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was the mayor of a smaller city, Burlington. California Sen. Kamala Harris was a state attorney general. Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown – still weighing a presidential run – was a secretary of state.
Before being elected to Congress, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was a member of the Obama administration. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar was an attorney in private practice.
Inslee comes from a state not known as a hotbed for political hopefuls. The last Washingtonian who ran for president was Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who ran unsuccessfully in 1972 and 1976.
The state shows up blue on national political maps, but it’s actually purple if you mix the blue West Side with red East Side. Washington has elected Democrats as governor in the past nine elections, and gone for the Democratic nominee in the past eight. Inslee could presumably carry his home state in 2020, but Washington is a medium-sized state, with only 12 Electoral College votes; it is not one of the elector-rich states like California, New York, Texas or Florida.
It is the state with the largest percentage of jobs tied to international trade, a growing metropolis with strong technology and aviation sectors, and varied agricultural and natural resource sectors that include wheat, apples, grapes and timber.
But it also is a politically divided state, and while Inslee won his most recent election with 54 percent of the vote, he lost all counties east of the Cascades, and some western counties that don’t touch Puget Sound, to a relatively unknown and underfunded Republican challenger, Bill Bryant. Donald Trump won most of those same counties.
Like any governor, Inslee has had successes and failures. The state has climbed out of the recession that forced reductions in spending on schools, colleges and social programs, and as tax revenue has grown, so has the spending to improve those programs.
Some of those improvements were forced by the courts: the Washington Supreme Court ordered the state to improve its public schools the year before he was elected; it took Inslee and the Legislature until 2017 to come up with a way to meet that mandate, which had to be revised last year and likely will be revised again this year. Despite more spending, aspects of the state’s mental health facilities still struggle under a court order to improve.
The state Department of Corrections has had problems with properly timing the release of its inmates, resulting from a computer problem that predated Inslee’s tenure and he says he ordered it fixed as soon as it came to his attention. But Republicans point out it was ignored by his appointees and the people who reported to them. One of the inmates released early committed a murder in Spokane during the time when he still should have been in prison; another committed a vehicular homicide.
Recent reporting by the Seattle Times revealed the department continues to have problems calculating the correct time when an inmate’s sentence has been served.
Inslee’s signature issue is the fight against climate change. The state has adopted programs to clean up its waterways, boost salmon and increase the number of electric vehicles, but one of Inslee’s key goals, reducing carbon emissions through a tax, a fee or a cap-and-trade system, have failed in the Legislature or at the ballot box.
He has another ambitious environmental agenda for this year’s Legislature as part of his 2019-21 budget: Make energy the state consumes completely free of fossil fuels by 2045, protect threatened orcas, increase salmon runs, reduce auto emissions and clean up toxins around the Puget Sound. But it doesn’t rely on a carbon tax. Instead, the new money in the budget would come from a capital gains tax on individual investors with more than $25,000 in gains and a change in the business and occupation tax.
The clean energy proposal passed the Senate on Friday as Inslee was making his announcement, but it still needs House proposal.
Inslee’s tax proposals will compete with other tax plans from his party in the Legislature, and the demand from Republicans to hold the line on spending to no more than the rising revenue the economy is producing.
Among presidential contenders, Inslee has the best credentials on climate change, and likely the greatest depth on the effects and possible solutions. He can talk at length about shellfish beds stressed by ocean acidification, the effects of catastrophic wildfires Washington has experienced in recent years and declining numbers of orcas and salmon. He has formed coalitions with other governors who say that their states will abide by the Paris Climate Accord, even though Trump has pulled the United States out.
A political danger of his focus on climate change is being pegged a single-issue candidate, even with an issue like climate change which touches a vast spectrum of problems. He fits easily into the urban liberal section of the Democratic Party, supporting gun control and abortion rights, opposing the death penalty, the Trump tax cuts, Trump’s immigration policies, including the border wall – and possibly anything related to Trump.
He first caught the attention of some national pundits for a White House meeting between the president and the nation’s governors, arguing with Trump in early 2018 about the wisdom of arming teachers to protect students from mass shootings, and urging “a little less tweeting and a little more listening.”
While candidates who are members of Congress have a soapbox in their day jobs to complain about decisions by the Trump Administration, a governor has a platform to contest them, and at almost every turn, Inslee and Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson have. If there is competition for an anti-Trump block of Democratic voters, Inslee can make a convincing sales pitch for their vote if he can stay in the race long enough.
Washington was the first state to challenge the original Muslim ban, winning a quick victory in U.S. District Court in Seattle about two weeks after Trump was inaugurated. Appeals courts upheld that ruling, although the Trump administration eventually won a 5-4 ruling on its second revised ban in the Supreme Court.
The state has pushed back on possible changes in federal prosecution of marijuana in states like Washington that have legalized the drug, the loosening of some environmental controls, the ban on military service transgender, immigration policies, net neutrality, changes to the Affordable Care Act and, most recently, restrictions on family planning clinics from mentioning abortion as an option.
While he’s not unique among Democrats for vocal criticism of the president, Inslee has practiced a large supply of jabs and one-liners in the state and in smaller settings that he’ll be taking on the road to a national audience.
They’ll be intermixed with various sports analogies appropriate to that particular season, as Inslee, a high school athlete, is a vocal fan of almost any team playing in Washington state.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.