Obama Politically Triangulates in Favor of Nuclear Power

After a two-year suspension in issuing nuclear power-plant licenses, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on October 20th quietly granted long-term licensing renewals for Limerick Generating Station Units 1 through 2044 and Unit 2 through 2049. The move is the first indication that with the 2014 mid-term elections looking like a Republican sweep of the Senate, House, governorships, and state legislatures, the Obama Administration is taking a page out of the Clinton playbook and triangulating toward independent voters and more pro-business policies in the run-up to 2016 elections.

Barack Obama had been legendary in vacuuming up contributions for Democrats. In the presidential elections; he raised $372 million more than McCain in 2008 and $269 million more than Romney. Obama in the 2010 mid-terms kept Democrats equal with Republicans in business PAC contributions for the first time.

After the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision opened up almost unlimited corporate political action committee (PAC) donations, the Republicans thought investment banker Mitt Romney could crush Obama with big corporate money. But Obama outraised Romney by $123 million from large contributors in the 2012.

This big money trend for Obama held through June of 2014, as business sponsored political action committees in the seven key races that will determine control of the Senate gave 61% to Democrats. But starting in July, PACs have reversed course and 58% of PAC contributions are now going to Republicans.

According to Open Secrets, 2014 mid-term election cycle will cost about $3.67 billion, slightly more than the $3.63 billion in 2010. But in 2010, when voting occurred just nine months after the Citizens United decision, PAC money amounted to about $309 million, or roughly 8.5% of all money contributed. But “$480 million in outside [PAC] money has already been spent.” That already equals about 13% of campaign funding. With six days until voting, Republican PACs will raise and spend more big cash on tight Senate races.

After President Clinton was shellacked twenty years ago in the 1994 mid-terms, he triangulated to the middle of political philosophy and away from the hard-edge leftist agenda of very high taxes, very big government, and very pro-choice. Clinton campaign advisor Dick Morris described triangulation as:

“taking the best from each party's agenda, and come to a solution somewhere above the positions of each party. So from the left, take the idea that we need day care and food supplements for people on welfare. From the right, take the idea that they have to work for a living, and that there are time limits. But discard the nonsense of the left, which is that there shouldn't be work requirements; and the nonsense of the right, which is you should punish single mothers. Get rid of the garbage of each position, that the people didn't believe in; take the best from each position; and move up to a third way. And that became a triangle, which was triangulation.”

Increasing nuclear power is somewhat favored by 58% of Republicans and independents, but heavily disfavored by 62% of Democrats.  Few Americans realize that “nuclear power accounted for 20% of total power sector electricity generation in 2013.”                  

One reason the percentage is so high, is that nuclear power is considered by the U.S. Department of Energy to be 64% of U.S. “emission-free” electrical generation and represents a third of U.S. industrial voluntary carbon dioxide reductions since 1993.

But the Obama Administration at the request of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) terminated the nuclear waste storage program at Yucca Mountain on September 30, 2010. U.S. industrial and utility corporations that benefit from nuclear power as an offset to spending huge money to curb carbon emissions were furious with the Administration’s move.  

Utilities sued and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and in June 2012 struck down the NRC's “Waste Confidence Rule.” The Court stated the NRC should have considered the negative environmental consequences of never building a permanent waste site. In what seemed like retaliation against business, the NRC in August 2012 suspended all actions related to issuing nuclear-power license renewals.

The U.S. Court of Appeals, in response to a lawsuit by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, ordered nuclear utilities to stop paying into the nuclear waste recovery fund as of May 16, 2014, until the Department of Energy re-designated Yucca Mountain or Congress designated an alternative repository.  

When business PAC money was pouring into their coffers, the Democrats had a 1.4% national poll advantage over Republicans at the end of June 2014. But since that money train has reversed, Republicans now have a 2% advantage over Democrats. 

Facing a reversal in Democrats’ poll numbers as business PAC cash swung hard toward the Republicans, the Obama Administration’s NRC quietly issued a renamed “Continued Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel” rule that fast-tracks the NRC issuance of nuclear power renewals and new license applications effective October 20th.

Bill Clinton’s triangulation after the 1994 Republican mid-term triumph to a “New Democrat” helped remake his party’s image with middle-class Americans by co-opting President Reagan’s appeal to law and order, individualism, and welfare reform. 

Obama’s move to support nuclear power is the type of balanced pro-jobs and pro-environment approach favored by independent voters and that help Democrats raise corporate PAC money in 2016. Over the next two years, I expect Obama to politically triangulate toward the independent voters and corporate cash by supporting XL Pipeline, eliminating some contentious Obamacare’s issues, and modestly cutting the corporate tax rate.